November 4, 2010

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Forming a negative with un or in & deceptively

Posted in deceptively, flammable/inflammable, un/im/non at 8:50 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Forming a negative: Un or in

A reader writes:

When I want to use a negative form of a word, I try adding either ‘in’ or ‘un’ to the word(e.g., the opposite of grateful = ungrateful or ingrateful). Sometimes, both forms sound right to me, and I don’t know which to use. In this example, I know ‘ungrateful’ is right, but I don’t know why, especially when ‘ingrate’ is a word, too. Can you help me with the rules for forming negatives?

My dear reader, I would love to help, but the sad truth is that there really is no rule you can easily apply. You can form a negative by adding ‘in’ (‘ir,’ ‘im,’ and ‘il’ are considered variations of ‘in’).

Examples: inelegant




The ‘in’ prefix is usually used when the word following is derived from Latin. I checked my examples using an online etymology dictionary (

Elegant comes from the Latin elegantem meaning choice, fine, or tasteful.

Relevant comes from the Latin relevare meaning to lessen or lighten.

Material comes from the Latin materia meaning matter, stuff, wood, or timber.

Legal comes from the Latin legalis meaning legal or pertaining to the law.

(I have to admit that I breathed a sigh of relief that all of the words actually came from Latin.)

The ‘un’ prefix is used to form the negative usually when the word is derived from English (or is of Germanic origin), but this is where the rule falls down: ‘un’ is often used with words of Latin origin.

Examples: unsatisfactory




Satisfactory comes from the Latin satisfactus meaning satisfy.

Substantiate comes from the Latin substantia meaning to demonstrate or prove.

Reliable comes from the Scottish raliabill meaning dependable.

Fortunate comes from the Latin fortunatus meaning luck.

Well, so much for that rule; it clearly is not going to be much help.

So, I must go back to my original premise that there is no rule you can easily follow. The easiest way to be sure which is correct is to check a dictionary.

There is one word that is going to trip you up every time, and that word is inflammable. Based on our discussion on using ‘in’ to form a negative, you would think that inflammable is the opposite of flammable, that is, it means unable to be burned. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Flammable and inflammable mean exactly the same thing, that is, able to be burned. The reason is that inflammable comes from the Latin word, inflammare meaning to set on fire. One way to remember this is to think of the verb, inflame, which comes from the same root. If you inflame a situation, you are intensifying or inciting the situation rather than calming things down. If you see fabric or clothing that is labeled inflammable, remember, you are not safe from fire.

Finally, if you form a negative by using the prefix, non (which you can use as a prefix with almost any word), don’t hyphenate the word unless it is followed by a proper noun (e.g., nonconforming but non-American).

Tip 2: Is deceptively itself deceptive?

A reader writes:

I have a question that I’m hoping you might address: what does ‘deceptively,’ when used as an adjective, really mean? If it’s sunny but cold outside, is it “deceptively cold” or “deceptively sunny”?

I thought I knew the answer to this (silly me) until I did a little research on the word. My mistake was that I know how I interpret the word, so it didn’t occur to me that others might interpret it differently. But they do.

First, I will tell you how I interpret this, and then I will tell you why you shouldn’t use ‘deceptively’ to modify an adjective at all.

If it’s sunny but cold, I would consider the day deceptively sunny, because, to me, the sun is doing the deceiving-it looks like it is nice, but when you get outside, you find that it is cold!

But not everyone agrees. Garner considers it “inherently ambiguous and should therefore be avoided entirely.”

The Oxford Dictionary of the Oxford University Press provides this usage note:

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 is one that 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

The American Heritage Dictionary provides this usage note:

When deceptively is used to modify an adjective, the meaning is often unclear. Does the sentence The pool is deceptively shallow mean that the pool is shallower or deeper than it appears? When the Usage Panel was asked to decide, 50 percent thought the pool shallower than it appears, 32 percent thought it deeper than it appears, and 18 percent said it was impossible to judge. Thus a warning notice worded in such a way would be misinterpreted by many of the people who read it, and others would be uncertain as to which sense was intended. Where the context does not make the meaning of deceptively clear, the sentence should be rewritten, as in ‘The pool is shallower than it looks’ or ‘The pool is shallow, despite its appearance.’

I am persuaded. If the word diminishes clarity and, thus, grace, I say, “Begone.” I have to go along with Mahatma Gandhi who said.

“In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in an clearer light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness. Our life is a long and arduous quest after Truth.”


1 Comment »

  1. Matt Wingett said,

    I love this word. I use it to insult people without them realising. Hence, they are “deceptively likeable”, “deceptively pretty” – and you, oh webmaster, are deceptively intelligent.

    Don’t tell everyone about it, or they’ll see how deceptively complimentary I am!

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