Simple and Simplistic

Commonly Confused Words

simple and simplistic
W. Richard Whitaker et al., MediaWriting (Routledge, 2009). (Getty Images)

The words simple and simplistic share the same root word, but their meanings are quite different.

Definitions

The adjective simple means plain, easy, ordinary, or uncomplicated. A simple solution to a problem is usually a good solution. In addition, simple is sometimes used as a synonym for naive or unsophisticated.

The adjective simplistic is a pejorative word meaning overly simplified—that is, characterized by extreme and often misleading simplicity.

 A simplistic solution to a problem is usually a bad solution.

See the usage notes below. Also see: Simple Sentence.

Examples

  • "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."
    (Albert Einstein)
     
  • "She probably knew more than he did. She had perhaps been playing him along. Perhaps she was thinking he was pretty simple and inexperienced and was amused at how he came up for the bait."
    (Martha Gellhorn, "Miami-New York." The Atlantic Monthly, 1948) 
     
  • "Pupils are being set simplistic science exam questions when they have been taught to a much higher level, scientists claimed today."
    (The Guardian, June 30, 2008)
     
  • "The simple model, on which assessments of proportion of variance that is genetic have been based, seems too simplistic to give useful insight."
    (J. Maindonald, Data Analysis and Graphics Using R, 2010)

Idiom Alert

  • Pure and Simple
    The idiom pure and simple (or plain and simple) means plainly so, no more and no less.
    "The Iliad proceeds from an idea of hero which is pure and simple: a hero is one who prizes honour and glory above life itself and dies on the battlefield in the prime of life."
    (Margalit Finkelberg, "Odysseus and the Genus 'Hero.'" Homer's The Odyssey, ed. by Harold Bloom. Infobase, 2007)


    Usage Notes
     

    • "Simple is an uncomplicated word which means 'straightforward, easy,' as in a simple solution. Compare a simplistic solution, which is too easy, i.e. it oversimplifies and fails to deal with the complexities of the situation. So simplistic is negatively charged, whereas simple is neutral or has positive connotations. Because simplistic is the longer and more academic-looking word, it's sometimes misguidedly chosen by those who want to make their words more impressive. The results can be disastrous, as in:
      This software represents the state-of-the art in information-retrieval systems, and comes with simplistic instructions on how to operate it.
      Heaven help the operator!"
      (Pam Peters, The Cambridge Guide to English Usage, Cambridge University Press, 2004)
    • "It is important . . . to distinguish simple messages that capture the essence of an issue from those that are just 'simplistic.' Simplistic messages are dumbed down, trivialize the issue, or dodge the core of the problem, rather than targeting it. Many political slogans are simplistic; for example, 'you pay too much in taxes' is catchy, appealing, and might even be true, but it ignores the underlying issues of what services those taxes pay for, whether you want or need them, and whether they provide good value for your money. Rather than condensing complex arguments about the balance of costs versus services, it avoids them—hence not simple, but simplistic."
      (Joshua Schimel, Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded. Oxford University Press, 2012)


    Practice

    (a) Senator Ted Stevens was lampooned for his _____ description of the Internet as a series of "tubes."

    (b) "The truth is rarely pure and never _____."
    (Oscar Wilde)

    Answers to Practice Exercises

    Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

    Answers to Practice Exercises: Simple and Simplistic

    (a) Senator Ted Stevens was lampooned for his simplistic description of the Internet as a series of "tubes."

    (b) "The truth is rarely pure and never simple."
    (Oscar Wilde)

    Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words