linguistics and lexicography Love English

Overall, there’s nothing really wrong with it

www.wordle.netSome 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.

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About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

6 Comments

  • As a foreign user of English, I have no idea what “bears no meaning whatever’ in nine cases out of ten” means, when the meaning is clearly stated as “considering something as a whole, rather than its details or the different aspects of it” or “when everything is considered, counted, or included”. And it makes me afraid.

    By the way, the overall philosophy of that plug-in in your blog’s code for highlighting and finding the definitions of words seems ridiculous, as it becomes impossible to copy selected parts of texts using right-click in order for using them in comments.

  • Mohsen: The complaint that overall “bears no meaning whatever” 90% of the time is hyperbolic and inaccurate. This is a common complaint among people objecting to a word on principle; irregardless receives similar criticism, even though its meaning is even more obvious than that of overall.
    I have no control over the blog’s code, but I’m sure those responsible will take the point under consideration. In the meantime, other approaches are usually possible (I use Ctrl + C).

  • The Google Ngrams result for “overall” is interesting: it begins rising around 1920, rises exponentially until about 1985, and then levels off or drops a little. Of course that includes both the adjective and the adverb.

    The OED first reports adverbial “overall” in the modern sense in 1393 (modernizing the language: “A king is held overall / To pity, but especially / To them wher ehe is most beholden / They shoulde his pity most behold”), but then there is a huge gap until it reappears in 1895.

  • I used to use ‘overall’ a lot, now that I come to think about it. Not in everyday speech, but particularly in comments on my students’ report cards. I suppose I could have used ‘to sum up’ (which might have sounded disingenuous coming from a Maths teacher) or ‘considering … as a whole’, but ‘overall’ is shorter and gets the job done. What more can be asked of language when one is reporting on a student’s progress? It’s interesting to discover some 30 years later that I was in vogue…

  • Irene: Thanks for reporting on how you used it. “Shorter and gets the job done” is exactly right, and helps explain its popularity.

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