Consider the case where a professor is erasing a board and one of the teaching assistant tries to help him by erasing part of the board.

Unfortunately, while trying to pick up the eraser, the teaching assistant bumps into the professor and they both drop their erasers.

An outside observer sees this and says the TA is ______, rather than helping.

The missing word or phrase would capture the good intentions but also express the fact that the intended help had the opposite of the intended effect.

In Mandarin Chinese, the phrase 帮倒忙 comes to mind, but the Google translation "disservice" does not quite capture it.

  • 9
    Hindering. Or, as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions (though, on reflection, I imagine that speaks more to un-acted-upon intentions, rather than intentions gone awry).
    – Dan Bron
    Mar 2, 2016 at 12:47
  • Did you try to find example sentences with the word disservice?
    – user140086
    Mar 2, 2016 at 12:50
  • It’s easier to find nouns for this than verbs, so I’ll just post this as a comment. English has imported a couple of terms from Yiddish that may be relevant here: schemiel and schlemazel. You seem to be looking for the schemiel. One is the giver and one the receiver of this clumsy bungling The difference is that the schlemiel is the inept would-be benefactor who’s trying to be nice and helpful and serve somebody a nice bowl of chicken soup, while the schlemazel is that somebody whom he has just spilled the soup on.
    – tchrist
    Mar 2, 2016 at 12:53
  • 5
    I know this doesn't help much but in Russian there's same phrase. Literally translation would be more of 'the help of a bear'. The thought being that the intent to help is there but you end up breaking something or messing something up. I have not heard of a phrase as such in English language as of yet. ("Doing more harm than good" that's the top answer I feel is simply a technical description of it rather than the phrase)
    – StanM
    Mar 2, 2016 at 19:16
  • 1
    @StanM: The phrase is also known in German: de.wikipedia.org/wiki/B%C3%A4rendienst "Bear's service" Mar 4, 2016 at 14:38

15 Answers 15


Counterproductive. The TA is being counterproductive.

His uncontrollable anger is very counterproductive to his attempt at saving his marriage.



The TA is doing/causing more harm than good.

to be damaging rather than helpful

Usage notes: usually said about things that are intended to be helpful but do not have a good result

[The Free Dictionary]

  • 4
    I think this is the most common one. +1 Mar 2, 2016 at 13:59
  • 1
    Agreed; optionally with the addition of a remark about why the TA's actions are being described this way, e.g. The TA was well-intentioned but clumsy, doing more harm than good.
    – Jason C
    Mar 3, 2016 at 20:27

Hindering. "You're hindering rather than helping!" is something my grandmother used to say to me when I was a child trying to assist in the kitchen. It means, according to Merriam-Webster,

to make slow or difficult the progress of

  • 20
    I don't think "hindering" really applies unto itself. It's only the full phrase "hindering rather than helping" that meets the intention.
    – Brad
    Mar 2, 2016 at 16:26
  • 4
    Your answer tempts me to paraphrase the old “friends/enemies” saying: “With help like that, who needs hindrance/s”! +1
    – Papa Poule
    Mar 2, 2016 at 16:53
  • I've heard "harming", not "hindering".
    – AAM111
    Mar 2, 2016 at 22:47
  • Try "inadvertently hindering" Mar 3, 2016 at 18:36
  • You would say this, but the other one captures good intentions better. However, no one under 60 says the other one.
    – jfa
    Mar 3, 2016 at 19:02

Well-intentioned probably fits the bill. It only literally means the first part of your definition - "intending to help" - but it's generally only used when you want to point out the discrepancy between what is intended and what the actual results are. A headline that began "Well-intentioned new housing policy" is much more likely to end with "makes things worse" than "is a brilliant success".



do someone more of a disservice than help


Road to hell is paved with good intentions

Prov. People often mean well but do bad things. (Can be a strong rebuke, implying that the person you are addressing did something bad and his or her good intentions do not matter.) Jane: I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hurt your feelings; I only wanted to help you. Jane: Oh, yeah? The road to hell is paved with good intentions. McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs

Using the phrase in your example,

A professor is erasing a board and one of the teaching assistant tries to help him by erasing part of the board.

Unfortunately, while trying to pick up the eraser, the teaching assistant bumps into the professor and they both drop their erasers.

An outside observer sees this and says: "The road to hell is paved with good intentions..."

  • 3
    As in, "Teaching Assistant's road to hell is paved with good intentions" ?
    – BiscuitBoy
    Mar 2, 2016 at 12:59

The best I've been able to come up with is the cure is worse than the disease.

Related phrases:


A related phrase might be:

Too many cooks spoil the broth/soup.

In this case, the specific blame isn't on any one individual "cook", but rather that too many people performing a task actually hinder eachother rather than help.

  • purely FTR i guess an older version of that is "too many cooks spoil the broth". I haven't heard anyone say "...soup" but I guess times change!
    – Fattie
    Mar 5, 2016 at 15:34
  • @JoeBlow - Based on nGrams, "soup" appears to be somewhat more common in American English than British, though "broth" is definitely more common in both. I think I learned it as "soup" because when they teach it to children, kids (at least in the US) are more likely to know what "soup" is than "broth". Mar 6, 2016 at 15:11

Inadvertently harmful.

Inadvertent means unintentional. It's close to what you want.


You could borrow a term from Dov Waisman’s title and discussion of the fairness of granting tort immunity to “[good but somewhat] clumsy Samaritans.”
(from ‘Negligence, Responsibility, and the Clumsy Samaritan: Is there a Fairness Rationale for the Good Samaritan Immunity?’ at ‘Private Law Theory’)

That TA is [what I'd call] a clumsy Samaritan.


There is a word like this in Swedish and some other European languages, and the Wiktionary entry has some insight into how to translate it:

  • A disservice
  • A mistaken kindness
  • A misguided helpfulness

To make it fit into your sentence you could say, for example, "doing a disservice" or "what the TA is doing is a mistaken kindness".


I'll go ahead and post this as an answer, even though I have no supporting documentation other than my own experience:

In my part of the world, this is known as hepping, as in "helping" pronounced in a babyish voice.

"Mommy, I'm hepping," said the child as she methodically poured the macaroni all over the kitchen floor.

Will you stop hepping? I'm already running late.

  • Nice word! What part of the world is that, southern California or eastern Pennsylvania?
    – Law29
    Mar 6, 2016 at 11:00
  • hepping brings to mind the word hapless which I think is a better match than merely clumsy.
    – Law29
    Mar 6, 2016 at 11:05
  • @Law29, well, Pennsylvania, but I believe it's actually current with a fairly large subset of the historical recreation group I'm a member of, so there are people all over the world who have had potential exposure to this usage. (Because heralds are silly people. Also fencers.)
    – Marthaª
    Mar 6, 2016 at 17:51

In your specific example I would actually say:

An outside observer sees this and says the TA is clumsy.

The reason is because the TA's course of action actually was, presumably, a good one. It's not the case that attempting to help erase the board is a bad idea. What actually happened was that the TA executed a good idea poorly in the physical sense: The TA failed to maintain awareness of what the professor was doing and collided with him.

What you are focusing on dictates the language here. If you are trying to make a case against helping to erase the board, you would focus on the TA's underlying motives and general consequences (misguided, harmful, etc.) - something that would affect all TA's attempting the same thing. If you are trying to make a case that this particular TA has personal problems executing an otherwise helpful plan, you would focus on this specific TA's actions (clumsy, uncoordinated, distracted, etc.)


Although this is not describing the TA, you can say that his plan backfired, which means that his plan had the opposite effect of what was intended. He was trying to help, but instead caused a mess.

  1. If a well-intentioned person causes havoc wherever they pass, they are said to be like a bull in a china shop. In the OP's scenario the teacher's assistant is clearly a bumbling sort of person

... while trying to pick up the eraser, the teaching assistant bumps into the professor and they both drop their erasers. The TA was as awkward as a bull in a china shop.

  1. For a stronger negative slant, the following idiom is used to convey the idea that someone or something is a crippling encumbrance. Often but not exclusively used as a derogatory term for a wife.

ball and chain
A burden and restraint, as in Karen regarded her job as a ball and chain, but she needed the money. The term, dating from the early 1800s, alludes to chaining a heavy iron ball to a prisoner's leg. Later it was transferred to other kinds of restraining burden

  • The TA was more like a ball and chain than a help

This calls for an adjective: Dangerously helpful! Annoyingly helpful!

  • Please give a full explanation for you answer so people don't have to go anywhere else to understand what you mean. Mar 4, 2016 at 11:46

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