Is ‘a deceiving look’ grammatically sound? Cambridge dictionary says that ‘deceiving’ is not an adjective, deceitful and deceptive are, but the given example seems fine to me. I see the word ‘deceiving’ as a present participle adjective there, am I correct? If the sentence is grammatically correct, what does 'deceiving' act as?

The sentence I'm trying to say is 'Gabor has a deceiving look'

Thank you very much in advance!

  • 4
    It's not clear what deceiving look means in your sentence without more context. Does Gabor look like he's going to deceive you, or does he look wimpy when he's really an extremely tough fighter? Commented Jul 31, 2022 at 17:42
  • Is "your cheating heart" OK? If so, why not this?
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jul 31, 2022 at 18:45
  • Have you ever heard the saying, Looks can be deceiving? Is that what you're thinking of?
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 31, 2022 at 19:33
  • @PeterShor The context of my example is your latter explanation :)
    – arteezy
    Commented Aug 1, 2022 at 4:58
  • 1
    "Gabor looks deceptively [adjective]". Commented Aug 1, 2022 at 7:06

3 Answers 3


Cambridge may say that deceitful and deceptive are adjectives, but it does not deny the fact that "deceiving" can be used as an adjective:

In English, many past and present participles of verbs can be used as adjectives. Some of these examples may show the adjective use.

  • Well, if they want to call it that, that is an incredibly deceiving simplification. [clearly and adjective modified by the adverb incredibly]
  • We argue that the subjects misinterpret this because the information to the visual system is ambiguous and also deceiving. [clearly and adjective functioning as a predicative complement together with another adjective ambiguous]

It is true that the use of deceiving as an adjective is old, but it has rarely prevailed over deceptive and deceitful as you can see from this Ngram:

And in case you think that these results are limited because of the noun look, here is a more convincing search: enter image description here

I tried other searches and I found it interesting how, as a predicative complement, deceiving is more common after the plural verb be, probably due to common expressions such as looks are deceiving, first impressions are deceiving, etc. But these are deceiving results, because they also include the present continuous you/they are deceiving. In the singular the other two adjectives seem to be preferred.

As for your sentence, considering everything that has been said, it may be better to say:

Gabor's looks are deceiving.

If you refer to his physical appearance, dictionaries suggest you use the plural of look. If you refer to his gaze, you can leave it in the singular, but then it may be more natural to say:

Gabor gave me a deceiving look.

  • 1
    Thank you so much for the explanation!
    – arteezy
    Commented Aug 2, 2022 at 8:42

It seems that it would have to be defined lexically, as for instance "converging lens", where "converging" is a verbal noun (also called a gerund, but this term has been rejected by certain grammarians).

(Wikipedia, verbal noun) Verbal or gerundial nouns, while being derived from verbs, behave grammatically entirely as nouns. For example, they do not take direct objects as verbs can, they may be preceded by the definite article, and they are modified by adjectives rather than adverbs.[4] They may also be used as count nouns and pluralized. In English, verbal nouns are formed from verbs with the suffix -ing, that is, they take the same form as the gerund.

Other examples of such constructions where the -ing-form can be either a verbal noun or an adjective

flying field, flying machine, (SOED, where "flying is defined as a verbal noun)

focusing lens, (not defined as a verbal noun in some dictionaries (lexico, Cambridge), nor as an adjective but defined as an adjective in Merriam-Webster), and defined through the literature. In this case the semantic tends to show that the word has to be considered to be an adjective.

deterring influence "Deterring" has been defined as an adjective in Merriam-Webster's dictionary, but does not figure as such in Cambridge Dictionary nor in lexico; it follows that in British English, the construction could be considered to be a compound in which "deterring" is a verbal noun or as a noun modified by a new adjective.

Deceiving look

"Deceiving" is not yet an adjective (not in Merriam-Webster, lexico, Wiktionary), [but it only seems not to be one (see user tchrist's comment, which prompts the present correction)]* ; although this term is defined as a noun, it is most likely that in the construction "deceiving look" it will probably have to be defined as an adjective synonymous of "deceitful". It is a new introduction into the language found frequently in the last twenty years, as this page of examples and the following show.

*later addition

  • Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Here’s actual evidence: the OED says deceiving is an adjective, and has been such since the early 1500s! Shakespeare a hundred years later writes “many deceiving promises of life” in Measure for Measure. More recent citations include “Covetousness is a deceiving sin” and “The most deceiving tongue”. It has an adverb derived from the adjective in deceivingly. ɴᴏᴛᴀ ʙᴇɴᴇ: They attest that as an adjective, deceiving occurs an order of magnitude less frequently than does deceitful.
    – tchrist
    Commented Aug 1, 2022 at 0:20
  • @tchrist It not an absence of evidence, but rather deceitful evidence; added to this missing entry in the dictionaries currently available, the SOED gives "deceiver" and "deceivingly" as derivatives but does not mention "deceiving", and so one is strongly inclined to think that the term is not recognized as part of the language.
    – LPH
    Commented Aug 1, 2022 at 1:40
  • Thank you so much for your thorough explanation!
    – arteezy
    Commented Aug 1, 2022 at 5:01

A piece of language may be, in the strictest sense of the term, perfectly grammatical but sound absolutely unnatural. The Oxford Collocations dictionary does not collocate 'deceiving' with 'look' before the noun, that is as an attributive adjective. Some adjectives can only be placed in the predicative position (that is after a link verb) as in "looks can be deceiving". This may be the case in "deceiving look", which certainly reads as awkward to the English ear. Rhythm also determines usage, even if the construction is to be read silently.

References: Oxford Collocations Dictionary
Michael Swan: Practical English Usage
There are also collocation dictionaries on the net and a simple Google search can be used as a rough guide to compare questionable collocations (how frequently does this construction appear compared with a synonymous one?)

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