Some words may seem harmless but attract prolonged disapproval from critics. One such word is overall, in its use both as an adjective meaning ‘considering something as a whole, rather than its details or the different aspects of it’ (the overall result), and as an adverb – usually a sentence adverb – meaning ‘when everything is considered, counted, or included’ (They were pleased overall).
English has many words and phrases to convey this idea of general totality. We say in general, general(ly), in essence, essentially, mainly, in the main, (on the) whole, and so on. Overall has established its place among them and proven a handy and popular option. Its convenience contributes to its popularity, which in turn provokes the critics.
In The Complete Plain Words, first published 60 years ago, Ernest Gowers described as ‘astonishing’ the word’s growth in popularity, then spent two full pages showing how it was being used as a synonym for more than a dozen other words. A few years later, overall was described (fairly, I think) as a ‘vogue word’ in Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage. Vogue words are ‘faddish, trendy, ubiquitous words that have something new about them’, writes Bryan Garner in his Modern American Usage. One of the vogue words in this 2009 book is… overall. Just how long can a word be in vogue?
Ammon Shea’s book Bad English quotes Lord Conesford complaining in 1957 that overall ‘bears no meaning whatever’ in nine cases out of ten, and that the rest of the time it can be replaced by total, average, overriding, complete, ‘or any one of several other things’. What this critic disliked about overall but not overriding is uncertain – the fact that it was in fashion, maybe, or that he heard Americans use it. His essay, published in the Saturday Evening Post, was titled ‘You Americans Are Murdering the Language’. When word rage takes hold, there’s no limit to rhetorical hyperbole.
Sentence adverbs have a particular tendency to draw fire. Hopefully is the most notorious example, but basically and actually have their share of critics too. The first is often accused of being used incorrectly, the others of being overused. Perceived overuse also seems to be the main problem people have with overall – at least that’s my overall impression.
Certainly there are times when overall adds little or nothing to a sentence and omitting it makes for more direct and effective prose. But the word has its place, and I don’t think it should be considered a vogue word any more. My advice is to use it if you wish, but not gratuitously, and be aware of the alternatives: a different word may convey your overall meaning – I mean your precise meaning – better.Email this Post