Thursday, February 9, 2012

Simply Unnecessary

"Simply" is a word that makes me cringe.

It's not the word "simple" I dislike; that's a lovely adjective. But something about that adverbial "ly" suffix, combined with the way the word is used, bothers me.

Unlike many of the other words I hate, which often earned my contempt decades ago, my dislike of "simply" started only about five years ago. I was laying out recipes for a client when I felt what is now a familiar surge of bile. I don't remember the exact words she had written, but they were pretty similar to this:

When the water boils, simply turn off the stove.
The urge to remove that extraneous adverb was almost overwhelming.

Soon I noticed that "simply" usually appears in instructional contexts like this, where it adds nothing more than an air of condescension.

What function does it serve? Is it trying to indicate that you don't need to do this step carefully, that there's no way you could do it wrong? Is that helpful?

It's not just recipes that suffer from "simply." Instructions for how to do just about everything are littered with them, many describing activities that are not simple at all:

Google screen snapshot reading, These are the instructions for the Aquarium Pharmaceuticals Ammonia Test Kit. For the color chart, simply save the picture to your computer, then print…
Google screen snapshot reading, For detailed instructions, simply click on the link for the section you need help with.
Google screen snapshot reading, To locate an Assembly Manual for your product, simply enter the item's SKU and click Search.
Google screen snapshot reading, Whenever you wish to use AmphetaDesk, simply double click the .exe…
Google screen snapshot reading, To store the Tape Guide, simply clip it onto the support bracket…

Some uses were extra-clueless:

Google screen snapshot reading, Simply hold mouse over arrows to move floor plant left, right, up, down, or to either side…. Simply follow the directions.
Oh, simply follow the directions. Thanks. I hadn't thought of that.

Google screen snapshot reading, To lower the pitch simple unscrew the Bottom Section anti-clockwise out of the Mid Section….
Sounds simple.

Google screen snapshot reading, For DNS veterans, switching to Internet Guide is easy. Simply replace your current recursive resolvers with….
Oh yes, replacing my recursive resolvers is always simple.

Google screen snapshot reading, To lower blind, simply pull down using the grips on the bottomrail. To raise the blind, simply guide the blind to the desired position by gently lifting the bottomrail.
If you have to write instructions on how to use window blinds, it isn't simple.

Google screen snapshot reading, After the ball is let loose from the obstacle by simply moving the guide rod to the side on the left, activate rewinding the nylon line to bring the ball into the ideal…

Google screen snapshot reading, Simply follow the instructions for the shopping cart, entering your custom text where appropriate.
As everyone knows, e-commerce is something users have no trouble with, because it's so simple.

Google screen snapshot reading, While sitting on the toilet or an equally relaxed position, simply insert the folded cup completely into your…

While looking for examples, I also discovered there are a large number of writers on the interweb who don't know the difference between "simple" and "simply":
Google screen snapshot reading, When you are ready to submit your file follow these simply instructions.
I can think of a few cases where the word doesn't bother me much, if at all. If you search "simply" on my blog, you'll find it used mostly in quotes from other sources, but a few times I've used it in a way that seems to work:
Much as I liked the editorial, I thought Steve Sack's cartoon from a few weeks ago probably made the case against the bill more simply and effectively....
Daniel Shaw, a speech language pathologist from Minneapolis, wrote simply of the divergence between "my" children -- who have been nurtured and prepared for school...
Too often, a concisely written essay is graded lower simply because it's short.
The last of those examples comes the closest to using the word in the way I don't like, and I might have been better off using "only" or "merely" (although I don't like "merely" much either).

It's simple. It's important to be careful using "simply."


Michael Leddy said...

Guess who just went through his blog and removed six simplys? (Thanks.)

“Simply put” drives me up a wall. To my ears it’s condescending and pompous.

Daughter Number Three said...

Yes, "simply put" is another part of the problem. I can feel my skin crawling as I type those words.