“Simply” Wrong

“Simply” Wrong

This morning in a meeting, an account manager voiced an opinion: “well, you simply have to X…” Irrespective of the content, and of any thoughts merits of the words of an account manager in an engineering discussion, I was suddenly aware of that word, “simply.” How easily it trips off the tongue! It and its cousins “just”, “only” (and “easily”) slip so – well, simply – into conversation; they are so often that they are usually ignored. But they still affect the tone of the sentence, of the discussion itself. They diminish the things that we engineers have to get to the bottom of. In this morning’s case, it was a process: “simply insert it and tighten it.” Account Manager talk, yes, but do you see how quickly that trivialises the problem, without adding anything useful to the discussion?

In fact, in the spirit of thinking things through, I would propose that we banish adverbs (words that describe how a verb is done to a thing; basically those -ly words) from engineering, unless they explicitly describe a process. Here’s a quick hit-list off the top of my head:

  • Simply: Things are never simple.
  • Difficult: (usually used as a cop-out for doing anything at all.)
  • Quickly: No. Tell us how fast, or let us work it out – whether we’re talking about the speed of a process, or deadlines.
  • Big / Small: Often given without context. Good grief.
  • Obviously: Obviously in the context of this post, I would ban that word, too. It immediately excludes thinking from other perspectives. “Clearly” is very similar, but it can be useful in the context of logical discussions.

Obviously I am simply right. No discussion required. Right? Chime in with your comments if you think of adverbs that would kill my argument stone dead!


I like this post. Reminds me of the time engineering was working on solving a particular hardware issue we had. The first couple prototypes did not fix the issue. A couple of the fellows in another department were just shocked we hadn’t solved this yet. One brought up his Navy experience was some sort of comment to the effect of, “when I was in the Navy if we had something that wasn’t working we just devoted all our resources to it and fixed it.” Seems to undermine that engineering is a process. That the whole point of prototypes and testing is that you don’t always get it right the first time.

Reminds me of my old director that wanted 100% perfect prototypes. Makes me wonder why we even prototype anything if the requirement is perfection.

@gasstationwithoutpumps: thanks for those suggestions – they would also fit into my book of adverb horrors! How precise is precise? Are we talking tenths, hundredths or nanos?

@Frautech and Fluxor, we often have the opposite problem: that the prototypes are easier to produce exactly. It’s when you need to produce millions of parts that statistics start to get in the way. That’s when Navy CSI forensics are required rather than the soldiery!

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