Equal treatment

Q: Please forgive this ignorant foreigner’s frustration with the intricacies of your bewildering American English. I don’t understand why people say things like “Our federal debt is equally as bad as our federal deficit.” Isn’t “equally as” overkill?

A: Yes, we think it is, and many usage authorities agree with us.

Henry Fowler, in the original 1926 edition of Modern English Usage, says the use of “equally as” instead of “equally” or “as” by itself “is an illiterate tautology.”

R. W. Burchfield, in the 2004 revised third edition of the usage guide, quotes Fowler’s original comment and says “the echoes of his condemnation rumble on.”

If we were writing that sentence about the debt and the deficit, we’d use “as bad as” or “equally bad as” or (for more emphasis) “just as bad as,” “quite as bad as,” or “every bit as bad as.”

To be fair, though, we should mention that Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage considers “equally as” an acceptable idiomatic way of adding emphasis.

Equally as is certainly not ‘illiterate,’ and its redundancy is more apparent than real,” M-W says. “We would describe it as an idiomatic phrase that is equivalent to just as and that is widely regarded as redundant.”

In the end, though, the usage guide suggests that writers avoid using “equally as” because of the phrase’s bad reputation among language commentators:

“This innocuous phrase has drawn more vehement criticism than is warranted, but you may well want to prefer just as in your writing or to use equally by itself for emphasis where your construction permits it.”

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