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I'm not sure if this is a duplicate question, but I couldn't find anything on here on the topic. I can't seem to figure out what is actually meant when using the word "deceptive," or rather, what is the proper way to use it.

Example: "The floor is deceptively flat."

Do you mean that the floor is flatter than it looks, or it looks flatter than it is?

I know that's not a really good example, but I'm struggling to think of a better one now, however I think it serves to illustrate what I mean. There are many cases that I've felt that the word deceptive is used... interchangeably, if you will.

How about this: "He's deceptively strong." I think most would agree here that it means the person being referred to is stronger than he appears. But then what about this: "He looks deceptively strong."

I realize also that I may be finicky or am talking here more about semantics than anything else, but I really would appreciate it if someone could set the record straight for me. It's something that's been bothering me for ages and I can never seem to find 100% clarity on the matter.

I can't seem to find an official definition on the web either for which way around it should be. The common opinion seems to be that you should infer its meaning from the context it's being used in, which is fair most of the time, but there have been cases that I've come across where it is used and I find myself wondering which way around the person using it, meant it.

Any help?

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This is going to be a polarizing question; people I know who adhere to one or the other interpretation sometimes have no idea why anyone would believe the opposite. –  Ryan Reich May 12 '11 at 12:44
    
@Ryan en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Spinning_Dancer –  Ed Guiness May 12 '11 at 13:47
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@Ed Guiness: I had a very long, thoughtful discussion about this illusion with my family a few years ago. In the end, I explained in precise steps how one could consciously and deliberately make the dancer reverse her apparent direction of spin, and everyone else agreed that it worked for them. –  Ryan Reich May 12 '11 at 13:59
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@Ryan I would like to know those steps, if you remember them. –  Ed Guiness May 12 '11 at 14:51
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This is one of those issues where my solution is just to avoid using the phrase entirely. ("More/less granular" is another.) –  dfan May 12 '11 at 18:10
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10 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

In theory, this should be easy. Drop "deceptively" and you have the essential quality of the subject:

"The floor is deceptively flat" → The floor is flat.
"He's deceptively strong" → He is strong.
"He looks deceptively strong" → He looks strong.

Now add "deceptively" back in to indicate how the observer has been deceived:

"The floor is deceptively flat" → The floor is flat (but appears otherwise).
"He's deceptively strong" → He is strong (but appears otherwise).
"He looks deceptively strong" → He looks strong (but is otherwise).

The difference between #2 and #3 is the difference between "looks" and "is." This has the effect of flipping the comparison around: in #2, you are deceived about how he is, and in #3 you are deceived about how he looks.

In theory, it's easy. In practice, you're just as likely to find the word used to exactly the opposite effect, so in most cases you should assume you're going to need to get the meaning from context. I'd recommend staying away from "deceptively" entirely when writing: "The floor is flatter than it looks."

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Lots of great answers guys, thank you. I have to say @phenry has the best advice. Everything said on this topic is exactly why I stay away from using "deceptively" in the first place. Thanks for all the input. –  DeVil May 13 '11 at 7:23
    
+1: Excellent deceptively simple? deceptively complex? answer. Your final point about people being deceived by the word "deceptively" seems borne out in spades by some answers/comments against that linked question! –  FumbleFingers Mar 1 '12 at 12:21
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I take the position that "deceptively strong" means "not strong, but looks strong". That means that I disagree entirely with what Ed Guiness said; I would say that

"X is deceptively Y" means that X has less of the quality Y than it appears.

I have heard a lot of disagreement about this point, and while I write this, only one of the four other answers (Guffa's) also has this interpretation, and I disagree with something it says too; namely, I think:

"He looks deceptively strong" means exactly the same thing as "He is deceptively strong". That is, he is not strong but appears to be strong.

I explain my position with the following logic: "deceptive" is used in this way when used directly. The word literally means "not actually, but looks that way". For example,

The politician's concessions to the other party were deceptive.

(In such examples, politicians are always short-sighted, expedient liars, unlike in reality.) In other words, the politician gave the appearance of conceding their position, but in fact, had not changed their mind at all. Of course, there is potential ambiguity in that the politician might actually have had a genuine change of heart and was understating the degree of their acquiescence in order to keep face with their own party, so some context as to the expectation is in order here (that's why I used a lying politician). I will return to the manner in which this type of sentence is deceptive later on.

I can imagine an argument for the other position, that "deceptively strong" means "strong, despite expectations". This is undoubtedly based on the fact that one can write

He is, deceptively, strong.

That clearly means that he is strong and that you'd think otherwise. I don't think these are the same sentence, though. I could also say:

He is impressively strong.

He is, impressively, strong.

Imagine those both being applied to a wrestler: the former is a compliment, and the latter, an irony. Wrestlers should be strong; a weak wrestler wouldn't even be in a fight. It is not impressive when a wrestler is strong, and to say so is to imply, say, that he is part of a competition among unfit contestants. Another example:

This room is exceptionally blue.

This room is, exceptionally, blue.

The first one refers to the degree of the hue, and the second one refers to its presence. In the first, one is remarking on how blue the room is, and in the second, one is remarking that the room is blue rather than, say, white. In both cases, without the commas one modifies the adjective directly, and with the commas, one is actually modifying "is". Thus, the difference between

He is deceptively strong.

He is, deceptively, strong.

is that in the first, the manner of his strength is taken to be deceptive, and in the second, the presence of his strength is that which is deceptive.

One might argue that in "this room is exceptionally blue", the room is at the very least blue, whereas I am saying that in "he is deceptively strong", he is actually not strong. This happens all the time with adverbs, though:

He is apparently strong.

He is inadequately strong.

He is not strong.

In my opinion, deceptively is another one of these words that inverts the sense of an adjective.

The other interpretation extant at the moment is pageman's answer, which holds that deceptively means there is more than meets the eye. It's true that in a deception, there is always something else going on, but that something is always in defiance of appearances. One would not say,

The richness of this New York cheesecake is deceptive.

because that would be like saying you are deceived by how rich said cheesecake is (a New York cheesecake, by the way, is pure cream cheese and looks it). It is hardly possible to expect a richer food. If you did make that statement, it would be a criticism of some kind (what kind depends on your expectation; perhaps you expected to like the cheesecake because you like rich foods, but you thought it wasn't that good).

If I wanted to indicate that there was more than meets the eye and that the difference was a positive contribution, I would say:

He is unexpectedly strong.

This conveys the impression that Ed Guiness describes.

It may appear from this example that I'm endorsing the interpretation of deceptively to depend on the context of expectation, so that in fact, a skinny guy could be "deceptively strong" simply because you expect him to be weak. This appearance is because the sentences

He is deceptively strong.

His strength is deceptive.

seem to mean the same thing. These phrases are, however, deceptively similar, because in the second one, "deceptive" ambiguously refers either to his being strong or to the strength itself.

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+1 for style, even though we are in complete disagreement. –  Ed Guiness May 12 '11 at 14:11
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@Ryan: I utterly disagree. If you substitute the adverbial phrase "in a deceptive manner" for "deceptively", "X is deceptively Y" becomes "X is Y in a deceptive manner." X is very much Y here (i.e. he is strong), it's the appearance that is otherwise. "Deceptive" binds to "strong", not to "he". When you bracket out the adverb with commas, you break that binding: "He is, deceptively, strong" binds "deceptively" to the whole phrase "he is strong." A resonable paraphrase would be "It is deceptive that he is strong," which doesn't actually make a lot of sense in this example :-) –  user1579 May 12 '11 at 14:15
    
+1 for style, -1 for complete disagreement so you net a 0. Your answer is well worded but there is no way to adequately debate this in the comments. –  MrHen May 12 '11 at 14:51
    
@Rhodri: What you say would be true if semantics were entirely consistent with syntax. However, there are other adverbs that break the "in a manner" rule. For example, if I said "Math is reputedly hard", it could mean either that math is hard or is not, but merely said to be. However, if I said "Math is hard in a reputed manner", it means that math is actually hard, and moreover is hard in the same way that it is said to be. –  Ryan Reich May 12 '11 at 14:56
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@Ryan: if you said something I thought was (misleadingly) wrong and didn't argue your case, I would give it -1. You do argue your case, though, so people who are less familiar with English have a chance of working out why we disagree. That is one of the important things about this site, and thank you for taking the time to be clear (even though I still disagree with you). –  user1579 May 13 '11 at 12:10
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The definition of deceptively is in a deceiving manner.

If the floor is deceptively flat, it means that it's flat in a deceiving manner, so it means that the floor is actually flat but doesn't look flat, or doesn't feel flat.

It's the same for someone who is deceptively strong, he is actually strong but doesn't appear to be.

The example "He looks deceptively strong." gets another dimension. It would mean that he looks like he is strong in a deceptive manner, but it doesn't say anything about whether he actually is strong or not.

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I see your point for "He looks deceptively strong.", however do you have any references? Macmillan claims that opposite attribute is implied, example: 'The house looks deceptively small from the outside (=but really it is big).' –  Unreason May 12 '11 at 13:14
    
Would "he looks like he is strong in a deceptive manner" more accurately match "he deceptively looks strong"? –  MrHen May 12 '11 at 13:27
    
@MrHen: @Unreason: That would be something that you would have to draw from the context. In the same way that he looks strong doesn't convey any information about whether he actually is strong, he looks deceptively strong doesn't either. –  Guffa May 12 '11 at 13:51
    
I disagree - from another definition: used for saying that something is different from how it appears we can conclude that he is not as strong as he looks (he might be weaker or stronger, but we have more information about what he really is compared to statement "he looks strong" where he might be strong or might not be which says nothing about what he really is.) –  Unreason May 12 '11 at 14:01
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In general

X is deceptively Y

can be interpreted as

X has a greater quality of Y than you might at first assume or observe

Now, with regard to

He looks deceptively strong

Someone with experience of this deceptiveness, let's say for example a pro-wrestler, might observe some other wrestler, a thin one, and conclude, based on their experience, that the skinny appearance belies a strength or compensating quality that should not be dismissed or underestimated in the ring. To this pro-wrestler the skinny person appears strong, precisely because to the average non-wrestler they would appear weak.

To the observing wrestler, the skinny wrestler appears both strong and deceptive, hence looking deceptively strong.

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I think your wrestler example is flawed or needs clarification: pro-wrestler already perceives the skinny guy as strong. This is not deceptive to him. He would use 'deceptively' only if he was talking to audience for which he would believe that would normally be deceived. But to them the wrestler does not look strong. What I mean is - he would either say 'He looks deceptively weak (to you non-wrestlers).' or 'He (actually is) deceptively strong.' In your example you are mixing two viewpoints. –  Unreason May 12 '11 at 13:25
    
It took me a while to "get" your last two paragraphs, but yeah that makes sense. In a sense, the person appears to be potentially deceiving? +1 –  MrHen May 12 '11 at 13:29
    
@Unreason The wrestler is the one mixing viewpoints, I'm just positing a scenario in which this (apparently mixed) viewpoint might lead to the sentence in question. –  Ed Guiness May 12 '11 at 13:42
    
@Ed Guiness, my point exactly, if you mix two subjective opposite points ('...To this pro-wrestler the skinny person appears strong, precisely because to the average non-wrestler they would appear weak') I don't think you have a good example. (In length: Wrestler talking to me would say: 'To you this skinny wrestler appears weak. That is a deception. He is strong. He is deceptively X.' (The context here is so strong that I feel that both strong and weak would fit and would be understood). –  Unreason May 12 '11 at 15:07
    
@Unreason I've rolled back my edit. My edit was made in response to your point about mixing viewpoints. But having thought about it some more, the wrestler does not actually need to be deceived to perceive the deception. There is no need to involve a third party. The wrestler could reasonably observe both and hence make the statement without any implied reference to deceived third party. –  Ed Guiness May 12 '11 at 15:25
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In your first example.

That floor is deceptively flat.

It is meant that the floor is flatter than it looks.

The same with

He is deceptively strong.

However, your last example

He looks deceptively strong to me.

Is foreign to me. I'm almost certain I've never heard it used like this before.

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Macmillan says that this adverb is:

  • used for saying that something is different from how it appears

and I think this is a good definition.

However, in usage it is often unclear and the meaning must be determined in context.

Let me try to illustrate (from same source):

That house looks deceptively small from the outside

is taken to mean that it is really not small at all (especially from the inside).

So, house is different from how it appears.

Now, if it said

That house is deceptively small from the outside

then we run into a problem - definition of the word defines it as an adverb that can describe how something appears and not how something really is.

Examples from other answers

That floor is deceptively flat.

As MikeVaughan explains, it can mean floor is flatter than it looks (actually, I would say - the floor is flat in a way that is deceptive).

If we use such rule for interpretation, then

That house is deceptively small.

would mean that the house is smaller than it looks. However, this is not so natural to interpret (to me) - I would rather say

That house looks deceptively big.

Similarly:

That floor looks deceptively flat.

to me sounds as floor that only looks flat, but when you put table, chair, bench on it they keep rocking because the floor is actually not flat, only looks flat.

So, if you want to use it in your writings I would suggest:

  • not to use it when talking about how something or someone really is, but rather how it looks, feels, smells or in other words, how something is subjectively perceived
  • to clarify when not clear by verbosely stating (example: That house looks deceptively small from the outside, but once inside you feel like you are in a palace!)
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So you endorse E-prime? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E-Prime –  Ryan Reich May 12 '11 at 14:03
    
It seems so, but I would have to read the whole article first. Thanks for link. –  Unreason May 12 '11 at 14:40
    
The more I reread this answer, the more I like the suggestion to use "looks deceptively strong". The problem is not what the phrase logically means: in English, sometimes no one cares about that in practice. The problem is what it logically sounds like, and using "looks" logically emphasizes that one looks a certain way, with "deceptively" inverting that appearance in reality. –  Ryan Reich May 12 '11 at 22:29
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I have always avoided such phrases as I do not know which of two opposite things they mean. Other replies seem to confirm that this uncertainty is general, though many individuals appear to know how they understand the phrases.

Sometimes I can determine from context which meaning is intended, but I may have to work it out.

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i agree. i think it is better to simply avoid using "deceptively". the same as it is better to avoid using "bi-weekly" or "bi-monthly". sure, they have definitions, but no one remembers them. –  Neil McGuigan May 12 '11 at 18:13
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I'd have to concur with the three previous answers - you can use "deceptively" in your contexts to mean "there's something more beyond what is being presented". So for the floor - it's flatter than flat, for the "deceptively strong" - he's stronger than he makes out to be appearance wise and "looks deceptively strong" - he looks strong but there's "Something" else going on with what is otherwise obvious. It's almost related to the idiom "I can't put my finger on it".

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It's 'I can't put my finger on it'. –  z7sg Ѫ May 12 '11 at 12:44
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@z7sg thanks for that haha I knew there was something wrong but uhm "I couldn't put my finger on it" :P –  Paul Amerigo Pajo May 12 '11 at 13:43
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Which three is that? –  Ed Guiness May 12 '11 at 14:41
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Ed's point is relevant. "Previous" loses its meaning quickly when votes change order. –  MrHen May 12 '11 at 14:52
    
@MrHen any idea how that happens - it's pretty random for me - sometimes after I post, my post is on top but that doesn't necessarily happen all the time :) –  Paul Amerigo Pajo May 16 '11 at 2:17
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Isn't the point here that "deceptively" is often used nonsensically - most obviously in the sporting cliché "deceptively quick"? Now, that is used to mean "surprisingly quick" or unexpectedly quick", but while the quickness might indeed be unexpected or surprising, it isn't in itself deceptive. What is deceptive is the sportsman's appearance (bulky, ponderous, or otherwise slow-looking).

My hunch is that "deceptively quick" has become such a staple of sports writing because of phrases like "deceptively quick feet" – i.e. feet that move so fast as to flummox opponents with feints or changes of direction (just as a magician might have deceptively quick hands). If that's what the phrase is used to mean, then it works well; it is indeed the quickness that is deceptive or misleading. But of course, sportswriters often now use "deceptively quick feet" and "deceptively quick" to describe people who are simply faster runners than they appear to be.

Of course, phrases like "deceptively quick" are very widely used, and the desired meaning can be inferred easily enough (most of the time). But that doesn't make them good writing. What on earth is wrong with "surprisingly quick" or "unexpectedly quick"?

I'd argue that "deceptively strong" is a similarly poor choice of words. "Surprisingly strong", yes, but "misleadingly strong" or "deceptively strong"? It's hard to think of a context where those would be appropriate. It's not the strength that's deceptive, but the appearance of not being strong. So a wrestler might be "deceptively slight" or "deceptively weedy-looking", but unexpectedly or surprisingly strong. Slightness could indeed be deceptive if combined with unexpected strength, but it's not the strength that's deceptive but its apparent absence.

Similarly, would a floor ever be "deceptively flat"? It might be flatter than it looks, and thus surprisingly or unexpectedly flat, but deceptively so? I doubt it. Compare with "deceptively slight" above. A wrestler who is deceptively slight is indeed slight, and if he is stronger than he looks, then his slightness is indeed deceptive; one doesn't generally expect slight people to be particularly strong, though they can sometimes be surprisingly strong.

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My deceptively lazy answer is these wise words on the subject from oxforddictionaries.com...

deceptively belongs to a very small set of words whose meaning is genuinely ambiguous.
It can be used in similar contexts to mean both one thing and also its complete opposite.
A deceptively smooth surface is one which appears smooth but in fact is not smooth at all, while a deceptively spacious room does not look spacious but is in fact more spacious than it appears.

But what is a deceptively steep gradient? Or a person who is described as deceptively strong?
To avoid confusion, it is probably best to reword and not to use deceptively in such contexts at all.
[emphasis mine]

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