“I over-exaggerated.” It was impossible to miss the world’s derision for Ryan Lochte’s poor word choice. The Olympian was trying to explain his lies about how he found himself at the wrong end of a gun after a night of partying in Brazil.
Indeed, “over-“ is a prefix meaning excessive or excessively. But there is no such word as “over-exaggerate.” And yet, many words with this prefix seem as silly as Lochte’s grammar misstep. “Over-smooth” is an adjective, but it’s hard to imagine how a surface could be more smooth than just “smooth.” You could correctly call the witness who shoots off his mouth “over-talkative,” but doesn’t “talkative” make the point?
My dictionary includes a long list of verbs and adjectives which start with this prefix. Many are useful and concise: over-inflate, over-decorate, over-sweet. But others seem like a linguistic tautology; the sense of the prefix is already included in the word: over-teach, over-quick, over-grateful.
Lawyers can be over-enthusiastic when writing about their clients’ cases. “Get To The Point” has previously cautioned against over-use of “very.”
When you want to emphasize a point, you may be tempted to use an adjective or adverb which is redundant with its noun or verb, such as: thinking pensively, egregiously wrong, lavishly extravagant, querulously argumentative.
Good legal writing is concise. Choose verbs and nouns that pack the most meaning, and avoid superfluous modifiers. Don’t over-do it.