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underwhelming

/ (ˌʌndəˈwɛlmɪŋ) /
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adjective
failing to make a positive impact or impression; disappointing
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Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

UNDERWHELMING VS. OVERWHELMING

What’s the difference between underwhelming and overwhelming?

The under- in underwhelming essentially means “too little,” and the over- in overwhelming means “too much,” and the two words can be direct opposites, but they’re usually used in different contexts.

The verb underwhelm means to fail to impress, especially when that is the expectation. Underwhelming, then, means unimpressive or disappointing. Overwhelm most commonly means to cause to be overcome with emotion as a result of an amount of something (work, stress, etc.) that’s just too much to handle. Something that’s overwhelming causes you to be overcome in this way.

Both words also have other adjective forms: underwhelmed (unimpressed or disappointed) and overwhelmed (overcome to the point of not being able to manage).

Things that are overwhelming don’t always involve stress or other negative emotions. A friend’s generosity or the birth of a child can be overwhelming. Still, it’s usually about feeling a lot. In this way, underwhelming can be the opposite of overwhelming in some situations. For example, the same concert may be overwhelming for one person (perhaps it’s the first concert they’ve ever attended) but underwhelming for someone else (maybe because it doesn’t meet their high expectations).

And, yes, whelm is a word. It can mean the same thing as overwhelm, but it’s very rarely used.

Here’s an example of overwhelming and underwhelming used correctly in the same sentence.

Example: It was a bad dining experience—the noise in the restaurant was overwhelming and the food was underwhelming.

Want to learn more? Read the breakdown of the difference between overwhelm and underwhelm.

Quiz yourself on underwhelming vs. overwhelming!

Should underwhelming or overwhelming be used in the following sentence?

I thought taking six classes in one semester would be _____, but I’ve been able to keep up pretty easily.

How to use underwhelming in a sentence

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