Misused Words: relatively

It Is All Relative
Image by Lorenzo Pasqualis via Flickr

Last night, I came off a very simple mistake writers make with word choice that can be very annoying.

The word guilty of misuse? Relatively, “1 in relation, comparison, or proportion to something else. 2 viewed in comparison with something else rather than absolutely; quite” (as defined by Oxford).

The problem with the use of “relatively” is two-fold: it is both over-used and improperly used. Relatively poor, relatively short-term, relatively new, relatively free. If you see relatively pop up even once in your articles, it’s very possible that you’ve already overused it.

Relatively should offer a reasonable comparison. A is relatively B compared to C. Let me offer an example:

This movie is relatively sex-free.

First of all, the question should be, relative to what? All other movies in the world? Perhaps the author is trying to state that the movie – which happens to be R-rated – is rather tame when it comes to other R-rated movies. In that case, the sentence is better written:

This movie is relatively sex-free compared to recent R-rated movies.

However, there’s still a problem with this statement, and it’s in what ‘relatively’ is modifying as an adverb: the word ‘sex-free’. The problem with this is that sex-free is a mutually exclusive dichotomy: either the movie has sex scenes or it does not. That is, this descriptor is not quantitative: there are only two options (it exists or it does not). Quantitative measures have varying degrees, such as wealth (one is not simply rich or poor) or spiciness (a salsa has varying degrees of heat, it is not simply ‘hot or not’). In our example, if the movie does not have sex scenes, then it is not ‘relatively sex-free’; a better sentence would be:

This movie is free of sex scenes, unlike other recent R-rated movies.

If it does have sex scenes, but has fewer sex scenes, then a rewording to properly use relatively is better, such as:

This movie’s sex scenes are relatively tame compared to other recent R-rated movies.

This is a very simple example, of course. If you do find yourself using relatively in your writing, make sure to check two things: that there something that the subject is relative to, and that what is relative is a quantitative measure.

What are some of your words that are commonly misused? Let me know and I’ll cover them in the future!

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