There was the following passage in New Yorker’s (November 18) article that came under the title, ”Is China really going green?”:

“But here was President Xi Jinping pledging that, by 2030, his country’s carbon emissions would max out, and energy from renewable sources would meet twenty per cent of its total energy needs.

In a sense, there’s less to the deal than meets the eye. It’s non-binding, and, as the White House statementabout it makes clear, the dates aren’t necessarily firm. --Clearly, there’s wiggle room on both sides.”


I also found the same phrase,

There’s less than meets the eye in the latest “blockbuster” realignment of leading Canadian media assets unveiled Friday”



I think I can guess what “There’s less to the deal than meets the eye” means from its context, but not very sure. How could it be replaced in straighter words? Is this a common expression or popular saying?

4 Answers 4


The phrase "There's less to the deal than meets the eye" is a reversal of the popular idiom "There's more (to something) than meets the eye."

Basically, "There's less to the deal than meets the eye" is trying to say:

The deal appears better at first glance of the readily available facts than it does if you actually read all the details.

A different source of the expression could be a reference to the book Less than Meets the Eye by Barbara Hinckley. The book is about how, to a casual observer, the US Congress regularly disagrees with the President, but upon further review of the facts, actually agrees with the President on most foreign policy matters. However, Hinckley's title likely comes from the "More than meets the eye" idiom above.

A comparable idiom might be "less than perfect". This idiom is often used sarcastically to express and highlight the imperfections of something, even though, literally, the phrase expresses something closer to "almost perfect".


"There's more than meets the eye" is a common phrase that means there is more going on than is immediately apparent.

Less than meets the eye is a play on that phrase, meaning the opposite.


As others have noted, the quoted phrase plays on a reversal of the sense associated with a similar-sounding or similarly phrased cliché. There is a small industry of such reversals in English (as, probably, there are in other languages as well). Here are some other examples of this rhetorical tactic in operation (all of them adapted from Saul Gorn's Compendium of Rarely Used Clichés):

  • Her [Katherine Hepburn's] performance runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.

  • The importance of this insight cannot be understated.

  • Before they made him, they broke the mold.

  • This book fills a much-needed gap.

  • We may be looking at an insurmountable opportunity here.

  • The time has come to rise above principles.

  • He won thumbs down.

  • That guy is unscrupulously honest.

I don't know the categorical name for this type of statement. Gorn calls them "self-annihilating sentences," but that doesn't seem quite right; they're more nearly "expectation-annihilating sentences." In any case, they are quite common in English.

  • I think both "self-annihilating" and "expectation-annihilating sentences" are interesting nomenclatures. Does it come out totally different in meaning, if I put it “self-negation sentences”? Nov 18, 2014 at 1:20
  • 1
    @Yoichi Oishi: No, I think you're wording (or perhaps "self-negating sentences") is actually better than "self-annihilating sentences" because it doesn't seem as rhetorically overheated. But the reason I argued on behalf of "expectation-" instead of "self-" as the more suitable prefix is that not all of the examples are oxymorons; some merely play with the limits or the direction of the more common (and therefore expected) phrase or idea, without overtly contradicting it. I should reiterate, too, that none of these terms is accepted as standard terminology, as far as I know.
    – Sven Yargs
    Nov 18, 2014 at 4:10

More (to something) than meets the eye : (idiomatic expression)

  • Fig. [there are] hidden values or facts regarding something. There is more to that problem than meets the eye. What makes you think that there is more than meets the eye?

Usage notes:

  • also used in the form less than meets the eye (not as interesting or complicated as it appears): Unfortunately, with her boyfriend, there is less than meets the eye.

I think insubstantial may be used in its place.

  • not considerable in importance, value, degree, amount, or extent:

Ngram shows that the idiom is quite common.

  • I should have checked NGram. Yea, the chart is telling. 0.00002% incidences of usage is quite high, and it keeps a constant growth, particularly sharp growth since 1980. Nov 17, 2014 at 23:32

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