Watching the deceptive

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After almost a month, I'm finally following up on the results of the single-question surveys that I asked Language Log readers to participate in. Each survey received an overwhelming 1500+ responses, and I didn't realize that I needed a "pro" (= "paid") account on SurveyMonkey in order to view more than the first 100. I owe special thanks to Mohammad Mehdi Etedali, to whom I transfered the surveys and who kindly sent me the overall percentages.

As it happens, the results did not change all that much after the first 100 responses: here are the survey questions and answers, with the percentage of all 1500+ respondents who selected each answer indicated to the left and the percentage of the first 100 respondents who selected each answer indicated in parentheses to the right.

Survey 1. Which of the following three conclusions can you draw from the following statement?

The final exam for that class was deceptively easy.

56.8% The final exam was easy. (60%)
36.0% The final exam was hard. (32%)
7.2% The final exam was neither easy nor hard. (8%)

Survey 2. Which of the following three conclusions can you draw from the following statement?

The final exam for that class was deceptively hard.

11.8% The final exam was easy. (12%)
84.0% The final exam was hard. (84%)
4.2% The final exam was neither easy nor hard. (4%)

Several of you wrote to me to point out that, at least for you, none of the answers provided was really an accurate reflection of your personal intuitions. This led some of you to simply not answer the question, and others to struggle to find what they considered to be the best (or "least bad") answer. I freely admit that there are several methodological problems with these surveys, but I think that the results reveal two interesting things:

  1. People's intuitions about what deceptively ADJ means are surprisingly variable. (This was pointed out to me by John Hawthorn, and is what originally led me to post the surveys.)
  2. There appear to be significant differences between people's intuitions about what deceptively ADJ means and what deceptively not-ADJ means, for at least some ADJ/not-ADJ pairs.

With regard to the variability, Simon Spero (whose email subject line is the title of my post here) writes:

The Houghton/Mifflin American Heritage Dictionary notes that for the sentence The pool is deceptively shallow, judgement of their usage panel was 50% for the logical reading, 32% for the opposite reading, with 18% finding it impossible to judge.

(Language Log's own Geoff Nunberg was chair of the usage panel of the AHD at the time, as he discusses toward the end of this Fresh Air piece from October 2003.)

Lauren Gawne also wrote to point me to this post she wrote on the topic (which was the first I'd heard of the excellent Superlinguo blog "for those who like and use language" — check it out). Lauren teases apart three meanings of deceptively there that may account for the observed variability in people's intuitions. I should note that even though my surveys only allowed for one interpretation per respondent, I believe that individuals have some access to the different meanings of deceptively and that these can be pragmatically manipulated. (More fodder for those interested in the methodological problems with my survey.)

As interesting as I think the variability is on its own, I'm even more interested in the stark difference between deceptively easy (56.8% = "easy") and deceptively hard (84% = "hard"). I think that overnegation (discussed a lot here on Language Log) is playing a role here. In response to this conjecture, John Lawler writes:

As for overnegation, note that "hard" but not "easy" triggers NPI [= negative polarity items; this is a common test for negative elements–EB]:

It's hard to believe anybody ever loved this place.
*It's easy to believe anybody ever loved this place.

And while "deceptive" doesn't, it still sets up an alternation between a "perceived" and a "real" mental space, just the way negatives do. (See for more details.) So I think overnegation of one sort or another is a good candidate.

I'm ill-equipped to delve into this hypothesis deeply enough, both in terms of my available time and in terms of my expertise (I'm a phonologist, after all, not a lexical semanticist). But the idea would be that deceptively easy involves only the alternation between a "perceived" and a "real" mental space set up by deceptively, leading to the ambiguity between the "easy" and "not-easy = hard" interpretations; by contrast, deceptively hard involves both that alternation and the negation inherent to hard, thus… wait, I just lost it. Damn.

And Lauren Gawne writes again:

I've often wondered with these if the pairings change the relationship — for example whether "deceptively hard/easy" are more likely to be analysed with different properties than "deceptively small/big."

Me, too. Sadly, my time and expertise limitations prevent me from pursuing any of this any further. Anyone who desires to do so is free to report back in the comments.


  1. J Lee said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 5:33 pm

    elvis costello

    nailed it

  2. Janice Byer said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 6:17 pm

    Wow. I don't understand what part of "deceptively" rendered it meaningless (apparently) to over half my fellow responders. Color me discombobulated.

  3. Clarence Rubin said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 6:37 pm

    @Janice Byer, I don't think the respondents considered "deceptively" to be meaningless. They were given certain options and asked to pick the best match; the adverb conveys a nuance that was not present in any of the allowed responses. So they weren't really saying that "deceptively easy" is equivalent to "easy", just that "easy" is a better match than "hard" for the meaning of "deceptively easy".

  4. Jon Weinberg said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 6:50 pm

    Some of the work could be done here by folks' understanding of the social framework of final exams, and by their sense that if an exam is deceptive (-ly something), then there's an exam-writer intentionally perpetuating the deception. It's easy for the reader to imagine why an exam-writer might choose to make an exam be hard while appearing easy (to fool shallow test-takers), but it strikes me as a little more of a stretch to picture why an exam-writer might choose to make an exam be easy while appearing hard. (That's my reaction, anyway; I write exams as part of my job, but it's been a long time since I've taken one.)

  5. Dw said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 6:51 pm

    I've mostly seen the word "deceptively" used where the situation is worse than it seems; rarely or never where the situation is better than it seems.

    Hence I interpreted both sentences to mean that the situation was bad (I.e. that the exam was hard).

  6. Sprizouse said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 6:52 pm

    I think the confusion arrives because people mean to say "unexpectedly" rather than "deceptively".

    For instance, if an exam gave me a lot more trouble than I expected it to, I would say that it was deceptively hard.

  7. Dw said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 6:59 pm

    Eric: it would be really interesting to find out how many test takers chose:

    * easy for q 1 and hard for q 2
    * hard for both
    * hard for q 1 and easy for q 2
    * easy for both


    I agree, it would be interesting. But as Eric P Smith points out just below, I asked folks to only answer one or another (in a probably failed attempt to not let their answer to one question influence their answer to the other). — EB

  8. Eric P Smith said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 7:02 pm

    @Dw: The figures you request ought not to be available, because readers were asked not to answer both questions.

  9. John Lawler said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 7:13 pm

    I think a lot of the problem (certainly a lot of the problem I had) understanding deceptively is that deceive is an extremely complex verb.
    It must involve a human (or at least sensate) experiencer direct object (the deceived), and it often does involve a volitional human subject (the deceiver). There is also whatever percept is being sensed by the deceived, which may be the lies of the deceiver, or merely something suspicious about the context, in the sense that it is unexpected or perhaps does not lead to effects expected by the deceived. See how hard it is to talk about it already?

    So deceptive can be predicated of the (volitional) deceiver: Watch out for him — he's a very deceptive guy.
    or of the (intransitive) context:
    Watch out for the steps — they're deceptively steep.
    which refers to self-deception, if anything — the stairs don't look as steep as they actually are.

    With deceptively easy/hard, another potential experiencer is added — an action must be easy or hard for some actor who performs it. Whether this actor is the same as either the deceiver, or the deceived, or the speaker, or some other agent in the context, is simply not specified. I won't attempt to go into all the combinations, but the upshot is that there are simply too many stories we can make about a situation describable this way.

  10. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 7:38 pm

    @Janice Byer: Maybe it's usage. You can see an example from 1895 where "deceptively easy" means "apparently easy, but really hard" here (near the bottom of the right column).

    I haven't tried to determine the full history of the phrase, though. This problem with "deceptive" is not in the OED or MWDEU, to my disappointment. The MS Encarta College Dictionary says, "Though deceptively simple almost invariably means 'complex despite apparent simplicity,' that is not a model from which to generalize about the meaning of deceptively."

    Or maybe it's association. There are many hits on "appears deceptively easy" and the like, so maybe people always use "deceptively easy" with the meaning it has when combined with "appears", just as people use "could care less" with the meaning it has in negative phrases.

    Or maybe it's pragmatics. How can an exam be "deceptively easy" and easy? That would mean it's easy though it seems hard. But in that case it really is hard—the hard part is seeing that it's really easy. Furthermore, exams that seem easy but are really hard are probably a lot more common than vice-versa. So as in "much-needed gap", people see the meaning they expect.

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 7:40 pm

    Sorry about the missing >. (Of the names for those, I like "morn".)

  12. Henning Makholm said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 7:41 pm

    I think I answered the "deceptively hard" side. It's not at all clear to me what that could actually mean — but I reasoned that if a test is anything deceptively, then the person it deceives must be the test-taker, and if the test-taker is likely to be deceived about the test, then ipso facto the test is hard.

    The same reasoning in favor of "hard" works with "deceptively easy" — but there you also have the option of a straightforward meaning: the test was easier than the students expected it to be, so they wasted a lot of time trying to find hidden depths and trick meanings in the questions that simply were not there. In which case the deceptively easy test was actually easy.

  13. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 7:42 pm

    And I did look at the preview. But it's deceptively unreliable, so I thought it was malfunctioning instead of looking carefully enough for my mistake.

  14. Mark F. said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 7:56 pm

    Janice Byer – I was among the responders who disagreed with your intuition, and it wasn't until I read your comment that I could even see how the "deceptively hard = easy" interpretation is even available (although I'm not sure what in your comment helped me see).

    My interpretation of "deceptively hard" was that the test was hard in a way that was somehow deceptive. And probably what that means is that it was harder than it looked. Sometimes sports announcers will say that a running back in football is "deceptively quick", and I don't think they mean he's actually slow but he deceives you into thinking he's quick. I think they mean he's quick, and that fools you into missing tackles.

    But it seems like, to at least a large minority, "deceptively" can mean something like "seemingly, but not actually". Is that right? Do any of the people who said that "deceptively hard" meant that it was not hard have that interpretation?

  15. Roy Sablosky said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 7:58 pm

    "It's deceptively X" means "It's X, which usually implies Y, but it's not Y." (Someone who says "My office is deceptively messy" might later explain, "It's messy, but not disorganized: I can find anything in five seconds.")

    If this is correct, then "If it's deceptively X, does that make you think it's X?" is a nonsensical, uninformative question.

  16. Duncan said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 8:01 pm

    The problem here is that there's no way to answer the question of whether the statement means the exam was hard or easy in the absolute, because throwing "deceptively" in there turns it into a relative statement matched not against the absolute, but against what one was lead to believe.

    So deceptively easy means it appeared easier than it actually was, deceptively hard that it appeared harder than it actually turned out to be, but to me, neither statement says anything about how hard it /actually/ was, so given the single "deceptive" statement alone (and yes, here that's doing double duty! =:^), whether it was easy or hard in the absolute cannot be determined. In a conversation or even a written context, one would hope there'd be enough in the context to piece together how hard the person actually thought it was in the absolute, but given the single statement in written words alone, there's simply not enough information there to tell.

    If I recall, I read the invitation when I was very tired, however, and thus upon seeing the question, decided I'd skip it entirely, as it was just too confusing to reason out and try to explain (even to myself) why it wasn't a question I could answer with any sense, in the state I was in at the time. Thus, I'm happy to see this followup at a time when I can actually think clearly enough to figure it out for myself, and thus to explain myself here. =:^)


  17. Nick Lamb said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 8:06 pm

    Two simple methodological improvements seem possible for someone wanting to do more investigating

    1. Give one third of participants both questions sequentially in AB order, one third BA, one third both questions simultaneously
    2. Ask participants to rate their confidence in each answer

  18. Leah Berman Williams said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 8:14 pm

    I interpret "deceptively hard" to mean a test that was harder than it looked. I'm not quite as clear on what "deceptively easy" means: probably one that seemed hard but was really easy, but possibly that it seemed easy, but is actually hard.

  19. Eric P Smith said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 8:24 pm

    Here’s my theory.

    If a person says that something is deceptively easy then logically that ought to mean that it is easy. But there is interference from phrases that use raising verbs: phrases like [looks|seems|appears] deceptively easy. If a person says that something looks deceptively easy then he does not mean that it looks as if it is deceptively easy: indeed it is hard to find any meaning in that latter phrase. Rather, if a person says that something looks deceptively easy then he means it looks easy, but its looks are deceptive: in fact it is difficult.

    Google searches find 1817 occurrences of [is|be|was|were|been] deceptively easy but 3119 occurrences of[looks|look|looked|seems|seem|seemed|appears|appear|appeared] deceptively easy. That suggests that the construction with a raising verb like look or seem or appear is much more common than the construction with the verb be. It is therefore not surprising that many people, having heard phrases like this task looks deceptively easy which imply that the task is difficult, assume illogically that this task is deceptively easy likewise implies that the task is difficult.

    I surmise that this effect is more common with easy than with hard or difficult just because the construction with easy is much more common than the construction with hard or difficult: more common by a factor of more than 10, if my Google searches are to be trusted.

    For the avoidance of doubt, I should say that the above figures of Google hits are the actual number of hits, and not the grossly inflated headline number that appears at the top of the search results. To find the actual number of hits for the phrase is deceptively easy (for example), carry out the following steps:
    Google the phrase is deceptively easy. Ignore the headline figure that Google returns saying that there are hundreds of thousands of hits: that figure is grossly inflated.
    Initially, Google displays just the first 10 results. At the bottom of the display, click the word Next. Google now displays the next 10 results.
    Look in the text box at the top of the page, which contains a long URL starting “” Find the string “start=10” embedded in it. Edit that string to read “start=990” (without the quotation marks). Press RETURN. If there were truly more than 1000 hits, Google would display the 990th to 999th hits. But in fact there are only about 500 hits. Google displays the last few, and tells you at the bottom of the page exactly how many hits there are.

  20. hector said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 8:32 pm

    My interpretation of "deceptively quick" would be that the back moves calmly and deliberately and gives the appearance of not being quick, but actually is quick.

    I remember reading an anecdote about Eric Dickerson's first NFL training camp. He was required to do a timed 40-yard sprint, and when the coach checked his stopwatch, he thought there must be something wrong with it. So they got him to do the sprint again, using another stopwatch. And they (by now there was more than one coach watching) still couldn't believe it. The reason was, Dickerson made no sound as he ran, despite being very, very fast. In the coaches' experience, this was unprecedented.

    Dickerson was, in other words, "deceptively fast."

  21. Jangari said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 8:39 pm

    I think a better way to frame the question would be something like:

    Does "The test was deceptively easy" mean:
    1. The test initially looked easy, but was actually hard
    2. The test initially looked hard, but was actually easy

    I am firmly in the second camp, that X is deceptively Y means that X is Y, whereas you expected X to be NOT Y.
    Searching for "was deceptively *" returns, as the first hit, the definition of 'deceptively', which has two apparently antonymous senses:

    to a lesser extent than appears the case: the idea was deceptively simple.
    to a greater extent than appears the case: the airy and deceptively spacious lounge.

    I'm suspicious of their first example 'the idea was deceptively simple'. I think it means that the idea at first appeared complex, but on closer inspection turned out to be simple, in which case it was simple to a greater extent than at first appeared.

  22. teucer said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 8:42 pm

    I answered the "deceptively easy" survey with "it's easy."

    Absent context cuing it as meaning something else, I read "is deceptively A" as "is, A, and this is deceptive in some way," or more concretely as "is A, and there is some B such that its A-ness causes it to appear B but it is not B." The linked Superlinguo post gives the example of a deceptively simple process, for example, makes me think not of a process which isn't as simple as it appears, but one that's difficult despite a lack of complexity. It's a simple process, but its simplicity is deceptive and tricks you into thinking it's easy. The deceptively easy test probably tricked students into thinking they had a better grasp of the material than they did, causing them to study too little for the exam which followed shortly afterwards, or something similar.

  23. BlackHumor said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 10:39 pm

    Deceptively hard: Hard in a way that is deceptive. That is, hard but did not appear hard.

    Deceptively easy: Easy in a way that is deceptive. That is, easy but did not appear easy.

    Deceptively hard sounds much better to my ears than deceptively easy. I think because it seems terribly unlikely that someone would ever call a test deceptively easy and mean it. Any test that decieved you into thinking it was harder than it really was really is hard, because of the deception.

    Furthermore it's easy to imagine someone taking a test thinking that it's easy and getting everything wrong; it's not so easy to imagine someone taking a test thinking that it's hard and getting everything right.

  24. Ethan said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 11:13 pm

    I ran into a paradox.

    To me "deceptively X" means "looks X at first glance but turns out not to be X". So the deceptively easy test (I didn't answer that side) looks easy but is actually hard. The deceptively hard test (I did answer that side) paradoxically is also hard. I started out reasoning that the "deceptively hard" test appears hard, but turns out after some thought to be easy. But then I decided that a test that makes you think before deciding there is an easy answer is actually harder than a test that both looks and is easy. So paradoxically the "deceptively hard" test does indeed turn out to be "hard" relative to an easy test.

  25. Mark F. said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 11:24 pm

    Hector – Your analysis of "deceptively quick" is better than mine.

    Jangari – "The idea was deceptively simple" could mean that it was simple, and looked simple, but that its simplicity deceived you into thinking it would be ineffective.

    At any rate, I'd say that anyone who has read this thread and still thinks their own interpretation is the correct one cannot call themselves a descriptivist.

  26. dw said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 1:51 am

    My interpretation of "The pool is deceptively shallow" would depend upon the context.

    If the pool were being used as a paddling pool for young children, then my interpretation would be "the pool appears shallow but is deep [and so may be dangerous for young children]".

    If the pool were being used in an Olympic high-diving competition, then my interpretation would be "the pool appears deep but is shallow [and so may be dangerous for divers]".

  27. UK Lawyer said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 2:31 am

    Following up on Henning's comments, if a question if deceptively easy, deceptively does not affect how easy it actually was, and therefore if the question is whether it was easy or hard, the answer must be that it was easy.

    A more interesting question would be whether the question appeared to be hard to answer on first reading. In my view, deceptively easy means that it appears hard, and therefore if the question is optional the candidate may move on to another question, rather than answer this one. However, an alternative interpretation is that it appears to be easy but is, in fact, hard to answer.

    Thus, deceptively is a reference to deceiving the (prospective) answerer; the question remains easy or hard irrespective of the candidate's perception. Perhaps some punctuation would help:

    This question is, deceptively, easy.

    Which could be viewed as an abbreviation for:

    This question is, although the reader may be deceived into thinking otherwise, easy.

  28. Kapitano said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 3:08 am

    This reminds me of 'The meeting has been moved forward' and 'The meeting has been moved back'.

    Some people regard it as obvious that 'forward' means 'delayed', and some that it means 'made sooner'. Both groups find the other group's interpretation incomprehensible. Whereas those few who actually think about language may personally prefer one or the other, but are aware of the ambiguity – and so avoid using the term.

    For me, 'deceptively simple seeming' is unambiguous, in that the simple-seemingness is deceptive, so it's actually simple seeming but in reality difficult.

  29. scav said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 4:43 am

    I agree with Rob Sablosky and teucer: I read "deceptively X" as "X, but…".

    It is muddled by the lack of anything obvious that a deceptively easy or hard exam could be deceiving the students about. Maybe in that absence, there is a tendency to attach the deceptiveness to the description itself.

    If I refer to a "deceptively small" suitcase, then you might infer that it is either heavier or contains more than you expect. You wouldn't infer that it is not small after all.

  30. Adrian said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 5:38 am

    Although on reflection I agree that logic dictates that "deceptively easy" = hard, there are two factors militating against this reading. One is that it's hard to compute that "deceptively" belongs to the small group of negative modifiers. Most people can accept "hardly" into that set, given that it's a common word used in a variety of situations, but "deceptively"'s use is restricted (For example, you'd be surprised to hear "That was deceptively the best thing to do" or "She's deceptively the best on the team."), making it difficult to "learn properly". (Our brains are, by contrast, used to the fact that nearly all modifiers that appear negative are actually positive, e.g. "horribly", "insanely".)

    The other factor is the fact that the word has been skunked. Estate agents are prone to say that properties are "deceptively spacious", where the word is positive and conveys the meaning that something is not apparent.

    "Apparently" is an interesting word, too, isn't it.

  31. Joseph said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 7:16 am

    I had trouble answering the question because none of these statements are idiomatic for me. I would be more likely to say "The exam looked [or seemed] deceptively easy" instead of "The exam was deceptively easy".

  32. V said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 8:00 am

    My intuition of "deceptively" is "The implicit target audience would tend to percieve it as X, and they would tend to do Y as a result, but the reasons these people would normally do Y as a result of percieving X would tend to be counterproductive to the aims implicit in their reasons to do Y after percieving X."

  33. Army1987 said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 8:15 am

    I would interpret a deceptively easy exam as "an exam which at a first glance appears to be easy, but turns out to be harder", and a deceptively hard exam "an exam which at a first glance appears to be hard because of something, but turns out to be hard because of something else". So I would have answered "it was hard" to both questions.

  34. wohz said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 9:30 am

    At this point, I can't remember my own response to the survey. I remember being confused. But I have two, opposite, intuitions.

    "Émile Ntamack runs deceptively fast" seems to me like he in fact runs fast but — deceptively — he does not look like he runs fast.

    "He made scoring the try look deceptively easy" seems like he accomplished a task that was in fact difficult, but made it look easy. Sprezzatura.

    I've tried to analyse this to make it that in one case the adverb is qualifying the verb and in the other, the adjective, and that (concealed) difference in structure explains why I understand the structure differently. But I can't decide which case is which, and in either case, I can formulate an explanation that predicts the right result, so that's a deceptively promising solution.

  35. Acilius said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 10:54 am

    My reaction was close to the one scav describes (4:43AM above.)

    I found it confusing that the exam in the object sentence was a final exam. If the sentence read "The first exam in that class was deceptively hard," then it would have seemed perfectly clear to me that the first exam was hard, that its hardness led the students to expect that subsequent exams would also be hard, but that in fact those subsequent exams turned out to be easy. Since it is a final exam, however, the students taking it presumably have no expectation that its degree of difficulty will tell them anything about any future exams, so I was at something of a loss as to what "deceptively hard" could mean in that context. Even so, I answered "The final exam was hard," since I could imagine a situation in which students would view the final exam for a particular class as an indicator of what might be expected of them in a class that followed it in sequence or of a comprehensive exam that students in a program might take outside of classes.

  36. Zythophile said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 11:11 am

    There is an expression in beer-reviewing circles that a beer Z is "deceptively easy-drinking". What this means is that it goes down very easily, but is stronger than its easy-drinking nature would suggest, so that one can become inebriated more quickly than one expects. How this fits in with "deceptively easy/hard" and "deceptively quick" I'm not sure: the phrase "deceptively easy-drinking" has two meanings, both "you'd think, given its strength, it wouldn't be as drinkable as it is", but on top of that, there's also the idea of "its drinkability will deceive you, if you don't already know its strength, into thinking it's weaker than it is."

    Unlike "deceptively quick", which means "looks slow but isn't", "deceptively easy-drinking" means "both is and appears easy-drinking, but has a higher strength than that normally associated with an easy-drinking beer." So I'd say that "deceptively X" has a range of potential meanings, depending on both the nature of X and the nature of whatever the subject is of the adjectival phrase: exams, speed, beer and so on. This may be a reason why people have a problem with agreeing on a meaning for "deceptively easy …"

  37. Laura said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 12:35 pm

    The discussion is mostly treating "deceptively" as a modifier to the adjective, but I think it really needs to regard it as an adverb. Here's why: For almost all modified adjectives, appearance and actuality are congruous (which allows our brains to usefully treat seeing as believing) so the verb is unimportant. If something is coldly inhospitable then it probably looks that way too, and we can talk about "coldly inhospitable" in a meaningful way, without worrying about the verb used.

    But deception creates an incongruity between appearance and being; in order to pass that meaning along, the reading of deceptively has to change depending on the nature of the verb – appearance or being. This makes lone "deceptively adjective" an inherently variable concept.

    So, "the exam was deceptively hard" can be read as "the exam was, despite appearances, hard", i.e. it was hard,
    but "the exam looked deceptively hard" needs "the exam looked, but actually wasn't, hard", i.e. it was easy.

    The idiomatic (survey minority) interpretations seem to rely – despite realising that appearance and reality differ, and perhaps because "deceptively" relates to both concepts – on following the general rule that looks = is and ignoring the verb used.

    In any case, as has been pointed out, the context and tone will often allow us to infer what is meant, even if we can't ask for clarification. But the potential confusion is why I don't describe anything this way.

  38. Anonymous said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 12:36 pm

    I think to explain the differences we simply have to distinguish between two things – the participant’s opinion/impression of the event in relation to his expectations (regardless of its reality), and the participant’s opinion/impression of the event in relation to its reality.

    A student would naturally expect a test to be challenging, and if a test is easier in the student’s opinion than he had expected, it is “deceptively easy”, or unexpectedly easy.

    From the other point of view, if a test is easier in the student’s opinion than it actually is in reality, it is again “deceptively easy”, or harder in reality.

    This would also account for the higher percentage of responses indicating a “deceptively hard” test was, in fact, hard.

    Since a student a student would already expect a test to be challenging, it is impossible for it to be “deceptively hard”, or unexpectedly hard. With this, the reader would default to the position that the test was in fact hard, because if it seemed/was simple (which doesn’t matter in this case), it would in fact be “deceptively easy”. Therefore the test has to be hard.

    Again, if the test is harder in the student’s opinion than it actually is in reality, it is “deceptively hard”, or harder in reality. And in these two cases the test is adjudged to be hard.

  39. Graham said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 3:10 pm

    There are a lot of moving parts in 'deceptively' modification that make these judgements difficult.

    First there as the fact that 'deceptively' has an attitude-toward-degree reading, of a type shared with 'surprisingly', 'annoyingly' and other (Intensional Adj)+ly derived adverbs. ATD modification indicate that an attitude is held towards the degree to which an entity has a property. 'It was surprisingly hard' means the degree to which it was hard. Depending on the adjective modified we get different entailment and implicature relations, for example (relating to the scales and standards used in interpretation):

    That it was surprisingly full doesn't entail that it was full (although it implicates it). That it was surprisingly late does entail that it was late. "That exam was surprisingly hard" doesn't seem to entail that the exam was hard, although it does implicate it (likewise with easy).

    These modifiers also have secondary attributive use (often set of with comma intonation) with the attitude toward fact meaning.
    So something like "The pool was, surprisingly, full" means something like "It was surprising that the pool was full." On this reading, of course, there is always entailment – the pool must be full for this to be true.

    Another complication concerns the adjectives themselves: what is being measured by 'easy' and 'hard' – one thing that could be measured is how much effort it took to complete the exam, another could be how many correct answers were needed for an A, and a third might be a combination of the two. So being easy or hard on one of these scales might not correlate with being easy or hard on another.

    Yet another complication is the lexical semantics of 'deceptively' which include something about what was deceptive. He was deceptive about his location, hair color, the difficulty of the exam, etc. On the ATD reading, 'the exam is deceptively hard' means the degree to which the exam is hard is deceptive, in other word – it's being d-hard was deceptive – in fact it was d'-hard. But this, as is probably clear from the paraphrase, is contradictory.

    So to get out of the contradictory interpretation we need to either 1) not use the ATD interpretation but the attributive 2) assume two different scales for hard/easy or 3) add some implicit intensionality (when we interpret 'deceptively' in the scope of another operator – as in "the rope appears deceptively short" the contradiction goes away). And these different strategies that lead to different interpretations (all of which are mentioned above).

  40. ohwilleke said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 3:37 pm

    The ambiguity suggests that meaning is driven by context for these phrasings.

  41. Boris said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 3:42 pm

    Wow. I can't believe there would be anyone to whom "deceptively X" would mean "Not X" *in most or all cases*. To me this interpretation is *never* available. "Deceptively hard" is then quite straightforward to me. It looked easy, but was really hard. The problem with "Deceptively easy" is that it doesn't seem to work without context. In isolation, something that's "deceptively easy" seems to be something that is easy, but there is a deception that makes it look hard. But if it looks hard then it *is* hard. So is it hard and easy at the same time? That's clearly impossible in most cases.

    On the other hand, in the right context, it *does* mean exactly that – once the person figured out what the deception was, say, or maybe in hindsight once the deception was explained, it was easy. In these cases the exam was actually both hard and easy from different points of view or during different time periods.

    As has already been noted, *appearing* deceptively X negates the meaning, so in that case, it's the "deceptively hard" one that has a seeming contradiction.

  42. Pliny said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 5:04 pm

    Off topic, I'm afraid, but I would like to see a column on the use of "allowed for" in place of "allowed", as in your statement

    "…my surveys only allowed for one interpretation…".

    It seems that "allowed" alone is being replaced everywhere by "allowed for", and to my ears they have entirely different meanings. I admit defeat, but would appreciate an argument will help me to accept "allowed for", because it's driving me crazy at the moment.

  43. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 5:26 pm

    I agree with Duncan's earlier comment. I am a specialist in poetry where things that seem easy or simple end up being more complex. Deceptively simple, for example, means "not so simple." An exam that seemed easy to students, who ended up failing it, would be a "deceptively easy" exam. I answered the "easy" question, and found it *deceptively easy* to answer, though I did hesitate a bit. If I had answered the other side, I don't know what I would have said because "deceptively hard" is not an idiom I have a grasp on. I might have thought it meant the same as "deceptively easy"!

  44. Dominik Lukes said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 5:28 pm

    My suggestion would be to run a test that simulates real consequences.

    E.g. The pool is deceptively shallow. Would you dive into that pool?
    The test was deceptively easy. How were people feeling before and how were they feeling afterward?

    Now, there's some priming involved in these questions. But so is priming present in simply asking for a polarity decision which brings the subject out of spontaneous understanding into logic like processing which typically doesn't happen.

    The difference between easy and hard is suggestive and borne out by the corpus. So it's possible that speaker intuitions are less important here than usage patterns.

    I searched for "deceptively [j*]" on COCA and by far the most common adjective is "simple" [191] followed by "easy" [16] and "casual" [11].

    The 'deceptively simples' seem to almost always imply difficult and so do 'deceptively difficults'

  45. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 5:30 pm

    Indeed, I've found separate quotes using "deceptively simple" and "deceptively difficult" as synonymous expressions, in reference to a poem that seems simple on its surface but is actually more complex. This suggests that we don't parse such expressions logically, but in accordance with what we think they ought to mean in context.

  46. Mary Kuhner said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 5:36 pm

    These sentences both want to parse for me as "The easiness/hardness of the exam was deceptive in some way."

    That *could* mean that the easiness or hardness was inobvious, so that it seemed hard but was easy, or seemed easy but was hard. For me *both of those sentences have both of those meanings* and only context can tell, because if you say that something was deceptive about the exam's hardness, that could mean it was harder than it looked, or less hard, and it deceived me either way! Since exams that are harder than they look are much more of a problem than the other kind, I would tend to parse both sentences as "harder than it looked" if I selected this pathway at all.

    It could also mean–and I would prefer this interpretation–that the easiness or hardness of the exam deceived me about *something else*, probably the nature of the material, upcoming courses, degree program, etc. "The midterm was deceptively easy, but then I failed the final." "The midterm was deceptively hard, so I ruined my Spring Break studying for what turned out to be a stupidly easy final." In this case "deceptively hard" has to be a hard exam, or at least harder than it should have been, and "deceptively easy" has to be a relatively easy one, otherwise this parse makes no sense.

    For many words with "deceptively"–but for me, not really with "easy"–"deceptively" could also be commenting on the exam's style. The exam was hard, and it was hard because the questions were deceptive–full of red herrings and double meanings. It was deceptively hard. I have trouble imagining being deceptively easy in this sense. Maybe a push poll that makes it deceptively easy to give the answers the pollster wants?

    As usual, around this point the word loses all meaning for me, so I'd better stop….

  47. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 6:24 pm

    @Dominick Lukes: I'll bet few people will say they'll dive into a pool that was described as "deceptively" anything.

    (Even "The pool is not shallow" would probably discourage a significant number of people.)

  48. D.O. said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 6:52 pm

    FWIW, when answering the original survey, I imagined that the deceptively easy exam is either of 2 things. 1) Where questions are easy and it is unexpected. For example, if you are given to solve the equation x+2=0 in Calculus class. Some test-takers might overthink the question (though I have no idea why anybody would like to play such games). 2) That the exam is actually easy, but even as it's called final, it does not contribute materially to the final grade, therefore whether it's hard or easy actually does not matter in a sense that the reader might think it does.
    I freely admit, that I constructed these explanations to make any sense out of otherwise very confusing question.

  49. Laura said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 8:48 pm

    I have a question for anyone who reads "is deceptively X" as "looks X, but actually is not X".
    If something is deceptively deceptive, how can that possibly mean that it isn't actually deceptive? Surely this can only be interpreted as a tautology; that it is deceptive but appears not to be—i.e., it's deceptive.

  50. teucer said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 11:47 pm

    Zythophile's example of beer may actually be influencing my definition – I'm a beer nerd (and homebrewer) myself, and have definitely made a "deceptively refreshing" honey tripel that you could sip like water despite it being about 9% ABV. But yeah, I stand by "deceptively X" = "X, with a surprise attached."

  51. Ethan said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 12:30 am

    @Laura: "If something is deceptively deceptive, how can that possibly mean that it isn't actually deceptive? Surely this can only be interpreted as a tautology." Why call it a tautology rather than calling it nonsensical? It's hardly news that you can compose logical paradoxes in a natural language. "This statement is false". "Jim and Bob are older than each other."

  52. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 8:16 am

    I think "deceptively deceptive" gets us to the Cretan liar's paradox.

  53. Laura said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 9:25 am

    @Ethan, Jonathan: A paradox is only apparent if you're of the opinion that deceptively changes the meaning of the adjective. But, in my view, deceptively doesn't modify meaning so much as add to it—highlighting that appearance and being are incongruous. So dropping it into "is hard" or "looks shallow" maintains those meanings but adds "but looks easy" and "but is actually deep".
    So it may stray towards Buffyspeak, but it's not paradoxical, any more than it is to call something "really real", say "it is what it is", or point out that a deception is deceptive. Saying something "is deceptively deceptive" is redundant ("is deceptive, but appears not to be" carries the same meaning as "is deceptive"), but not illogical; it's just calling a spade a spade.

  54. Brett said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 10:03 am

    @Pliny: The meanings of "allowed" and "allowed for" are different. Roughly speaking, "allowed" means the same as permitted. "Allowed for" means, "made allowances for (generally in advance)."

    For an online survey, the two meanings may be equivalent. Anything that is "allowed" is also "allowed for"; for any response that the software lets you enter, that software is prepared to process the input and include it among the findings. In other situations, the two are quite different. I'm allowed to paint my front door green, even though the neighborhood homeowners association has not allowed for it. (They have allowed for many other modifications of the property, but not door color.)

  55. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 10:33 am

    if I said "That's a simple problem to resolve" and you replied "Yes, deceptively simple," with that emphasis, you would be disagreeing with me or at least correcting me very gently. I see what you are saying now with deceptively deceptive, but I don't think the word is used to emphasize a quality already there, but to suggest that things are not what they seem. "Honestly honest" is not paradoxical but simply redundant, conversely. The semantic prosody of "deceptively" for me and for some others who answered the survey as I did is "seems to be but really isn't." So something deceptively deceptive is like the Cretan liar who says: "Everything I say is false." Otherwise it's a mere redundancy.

    I could be mistaken in this. All I am trying to do is make explicit my intuitions.

  56. Boris said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 11:24 am

    Mary Kuhner,
    You're right. I hadn't considered the case of deceptively easy referring to being deceptive about something else. That's a much better possibility in my mind for it to make sense than what I provided. Not so for deceptively hard, though. For whatever reason, the only meaning I can accept is "hard in a deceptive way". Maybe "deceptively" only works for me when the result is worse than the expectation in some way.

  57. Nicholas Lawrence said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 12:52 pm

    I answered the 'deceptively easy ' question. And at the time, I was totally sure that the only possible interpretation (for me) was 'appeared easy, but contained hard-to-spot traps', ie hard.
    I then looked at 'deceptively hard'. And, at the time, was totally sure that I could not understand this phrase. At first pass, it could (to me) mean 'appeared hard, but if you spotted the trick, was easy'. But then (to me) that makes it hard.
    For me, 'this puddle is deceptively deep' makes sense: 'you'd expect this, which looks like a puddle, to be shallow (as puddles are), but in fact it's deep.' Conversely for 'this diving pool is deceptively shallow'. Without context, I would not be able to decode 'This pool is deceptively shallow/deep.'
    'Their balance sheet is deceptively strong' at first means to me 'to the non-expert, their balance sheet appears strong, but a competent accountant would spot that they are insolvent'. But on further thought I find it ambiguous, because (to me) it could also mean 'Their balance sheet is stronger than it appears at first glance (eg because they have understated the value of their Peruvian goldmine).'
    From now on, I will refrain from using deceptively to qualify an adjective, since I can't know what others will take me to mean, or even what I think it means myself.

  58. James Arnold said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 1:02 pm

    In response to Zytophile, there is a British beer company with the long-established slogan 'Deceptively Drinkable'. I think they're trying to imply that you might end up drinking more of it than you planned, such is its stealthy deliciousness. But surely it actually means 'our beer seems drinkable — but it isn't'.

  59. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 2:58 pm

    Take this example of "deceptively calm." "The glimmering pagoda seems to attract people like a large golden magnet. Trishaws are slowly pedalled through the darkness as if the passing of time does not exist. “It seems so calm,” says one of the group, a local writer. “Deceptively calm. People are so angry. Anything can happen, any time.”"

    Deceptively calm = seemingly calm but actually not so. I think this would be a good topic for a paper in corpus linguistics.

  60. Ethan said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 4:34 pm

    @Laura: "in my view, deceptively doesn't modify meaning so much as add to it—highlighting that appearance and being are incongruous". Yes, we agree on that. The difference comes because you process the meaning of the subsequent adjective as pertaining to the 'being' whereas I process the meaning as pertaining to the 'appearance'. By Eric's Survey 1 statistics given at the top, respondents split 60/40 in their mental processing. Both interpretations are apparently common.

    "deceptively deceptive" – Donald Trump purchases a Donald Trump costume, full face-mask, wig and all, and wears it to a Halloween party. He appears to be disguising his identity, but he isn't.

  61. Andy said,

    October 5, 2011 @ 1:01 am

    Deceptively Hard = "it looked hard, but was worse."
    Deceptively Easy = "it looked easy, but was hard."

    Compare with
    "Simply Hard" = "it was as hard as expected" and
    "Simply Easy" = "Trivial"

  62. DonBoy said,

    October 5, 2011 @ 2:03 pm

    I notice that this made into a list on from 2007, of "9 Words That Don't Mean What You Think".

    In one of those amazing coincidences, I stumbled across it today by following about 3 links from one their front-page articles, even though it's from 2007 and I never saw it before.

  63. Ray Dillinger said,

    October 5, 2011 @ 4:35 pm

    It seems to me that folk in answering this question are treading on some nuance that I simply don't see. If something is deceptively easy, then in my own language that means it seemed as though it ought to be hard, or looked hard, but turned out not to be.

    Conversely, things can be deceptively hard. That is, some problems seem as though they ought to be easy, but when you actually attempt to solve them, you run into very difficult issues.

    'deceptively' to me is about the contrast between expectations or appearances, and reality.

    In programming I deal with deceptive problems all the time. Problems present in contexts where you think they're going to be very hard, but then you factor the degenerate cases out and the rest turns out to be simple arithmetic. Or, problems present in ways where you don't expect difficulties, but then turn out to depend on some nuance not well-defined by the available data, or require you to completely rework the basic data structures in order to find correlations that the original code didn't anticipate anyone wanting.

    'Deceptively' is never a negation to me, only a contrast between the extant situation with our expectations and preconceptions.

  64. Tony said,

    October 13, 2011 @ 10:34 am

    I agree with Ray above (and probably many others): since "deceptively" doesn't negate, something that was deceptively hard was actually hard, but just didn't appear that way.

    Eric makes a good point, too. If something LOOKED deceptively hard, then…well, I don't know!

  65. wohz said,

    November 6, 2011 @ 12:17 pm

    Posting to an old thread, but…

    Last night I was at a Tim Minchin concert (in Providence, RI). One of his jokes was roughly like this:

    "I've been worried about my weight recently, so I was very upset when a friend, trying to be kind, said that I shouldn't worry because I am deceptively slim.

    "This phrase has two meanings, either of which is insulting. Either it means I am in fact thin but look fat, or it means that I look thin but on closer examination I'm a porker.

    "So I punched her, deceptively softly, in her unambiguously stupid face."

    (Tim Minchin is a London-based, Australian musician/comedian obsessed, according to his own encore comments, with beer and Jesus, or, in fact, with the importance of evidence-based belief.)

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