Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: overly.

overly. Although it’s old, dating from about the 12th century, “overly” is almost always unnecessary because “over-” may be prefixed at will: “overbroad,” “overrefined,” “overoptimistic,” “overripe, ” etc. When “overly” is not unnecessary, it’s merely ugly. Some authorities consider “overly” semiliterate, although the editors of the Merriam-Webster dictionaries have used it in a number of definitions. Certainly this adverb should be avoided whenever possible, though admittedly “over-” as a prefix sometimes just doesn’t sound right (“overburdensome”). Yet it usually serves well — e.g.: “To supporters, Duke’s initiative was a worthy, if overly ambitious [read ‘overambitious’], effort.” Peter Applebome, “Duke Learns of Pitfalls in Promise of Hiring More Black Professors,” N.Y. Times, 19 Sept. 1993, at 1. When “over-” is awkward or ugly-sounding, another word is invariably at the ready — e.g.: o “Hence the UN inspectors were not overly [read ‘especially’] skeptical when they started their work of scrutinizing Iraq’s arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.” “Saddam’s UN Nemesis,” Boston Globe, 8 June 1997, at D6. o “There are certain things that are correct in one context but overly [read ‘unduly’] formal or stuffy in another.” Mary Newton Brudner, The Grammar Lady 6 (2000). o “The harsher attacks create some risk for McCain, analysts say, because he may come off as overly [read ‘too’] negative.” Jill Zuckman, “McCain Ad Fights Rival’s Celebrity Head-On,” Chicago Trib., 31 July 2008, News §, at 1. Language-Change Index — “overly” instead of “unduly” or the prefix “over-“: Stage 4. To learn more about the Language-Change Index click here. Quotation of the Day: “A definition is the enclosing a wilderness of idea within a wall of words.” Samuel Butler, The Note-Books of Samuel Butler 222 (1912; repr. 1926).
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