The Grammarphobia Blog

Counterintuitive: true or false?

Q: It bugs me to hear someone say something “seems” counterintuitive. “Counterintuitive” is one of those words suddenly everywhere (which might account for my annoyance). If inherent in the word’s meaning is the notion that something seems improbable, is it not then redundant to qualify it with words like “seems,” “sounds,” and “appears”? Would you like to comment? Or should I just ask Noam?

A: Is it redundant, you ask, to qualify an adjective that describes a qualified condition? Perhaps, though as we’ve written many times on our blog, not all apparent redundancies are redundant. In fact, our post yesterday says it’s not necessarily redundant to call a corpse a “dead body.”

In the case of “counterintuitive,” however, we’re not sure the adjective in question describes a qualified state.

Most of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked—two American and two British—define “counterintuitive” as contrary to what intuition or common sense would lead one to expect. Only one source qualifies it as seemingly contrary to common sense.

A more interesting question might be this: Why is “counterintuitive” sometimes qualified—that is, weakened with words like “seems,” “sounds,” and “appears”—and sometimes not?

A bit of googling suggests that the adjective is usually qualified when it describes a situation that seems contrary to fact but really isn’t. It generally isn’t qualified when it describes something that actually is—or probably is—contrary to fact.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), quoting from Natalie Angier, a New York Times science writer, provides this qualified example of the word used to describe a factual situation:

Scientists made clear what may at first seem counterintuitive, that the capacity to be pleasant toward a fellow creature is … hard work.”

And Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) provides another qualified example of the word used to describe something factual: “It may seem counterintuitive, but we do burn calories when we are sleeping.”

The online Collins English Dictionary, however, includes this unqualified example from the Globe and Mail in Toronto of “counterintuitive” used to describe a factually doubtful situation:

“Brother Jeff’s theories are counterintuitive at best, and have regularly baffled lawyers and judges.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, which includes both unqualified and qualified definitions of “counterintuitive,” has examples of both senses.

Here’s a 1974 example from the American Philosophical Quarterly in which “counterintuitive” describes a dubious situation: “The formulas offered by Day lead to results so counter-intuitive that they had best be called simply false.”

And here’s an example from the April 1979 issue of Scientific American that describes a factual situation: “At first the effect of the dimples seems counterintuitive because the dimpling surely also increases the skin-friction drag.”

The OED’s earliest example of the usage is from The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory (1955) by Noam Chomsky:

“If we construct linguistic theory in such a way that the grammar can present a phrase structure for every sentence directly … then this counter-intuitive analysis of (25) as analogous to (26) will follow.”

We’ll leave it to you and the other readers of our blog to decide which way Chomsky is using “counterintuitive” here.

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