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Not on the same Thesaurus page: Complicated, Complex, Difficult

Let’s face it – everybody has a handful of pet peeves. And, I think just about everybody has at least one "language" peeve. Our VP of Operations can’t pass up an opportunity to tell some poor misspoken staffer that "irregardless" is not a word (it’s either "regardless" or "irrespective", for those of you playing along at home).

Well, one of my major peeves is the synonymous use of "complicated", "complex", and "difficult." They’re not the same thing, and using some combination of them as such can set incorrect expectations on project work – for developers, management, and customers. As a project manager, one of my most challenging roles is setting expectations. At IDV Solutions, we actually tell customers we’re attempting to under-promise, over-deliver, but if my designer has one expectation for "X", my developer has another, the customer has a third, and my VP of Operations expects it all to be completed on time, on budget…well, you get the picture.

So back to the peeve of the day. I hear people say a task or problem is complex, complicated, or difficult interchangeably all the time.  Even the dictionary and the thesaurus tend to throw these words into the same bucket. Remember, this is a peeve, so of course I have my own opinion…


Complex things are made up from any (usually large) number of pieces or components that come from a relatively small set of simple things. Diamonds, buckeyballs, and graphite are all complex structures made up from carbon atoms.

Chess: 6 different kinds of pieces, only 9 different possible ways to move (plus a few "special" moves).



Complicated things are made up from any (usually large) number of pieces or components that are mostly dissimilar. Space Shuttles, ecosystems, and potted meat are all complicated (O.K., I threw in potted meat to see if you were still paying attention).

Baseball: 9 defensive positions + the batter + 2 umpires + 2 managers + 2 base coaches, a little-league rule book 2 inches thick, the subjective decisions of human umpires, all kinds of subtlety, irregularity, asymmetrical possibilities (notice I left out perverse :-).



Difficult things are tasks that by their nature are effort-intensive.

Marathon Running: Run in a straight line. Don’t fall down. Don’t stop for 26.2 miles.

In the business of visual composite applications, we get all three of these. Sometimes a customer brings us very good geospatial data, and wants us to allow them to perform a specialized spatial query with a new UI tool (Complex). Sometimes a customer brings us messy, unrelated data in two dozen different data sets, and wants us to bring it all together into a single, clean view (Complicated). And, sometimes a customer brings us a simple spreadsheet of data with location references for parts of the world where geo-coding of placenames hasn’t happened, yet (quick, geo-code Nzisa, Zimbabwe for me!).  Anyone can do it, it’s just a lot of effort (Difficult); sit someone in front of our Visual Fusion Client UI and have them draw pushpins on the map for each place in the spreadsheet. It’s a bit like running a marathon…

So next time you are looking to describe a problem or a bit of source code or the latest puzzle/game your spouse brought home for the kids, the peeve-o-meter inside me hopes you’ll think just a moment before choosing an adjective.

Christopher Abraham / IDV Solutions


4 responses

  1. Unknown

    Thank you .

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    يا فرق "التكملة" كيف ستجارين البرشا والملكي على التوالي؟!

    { ريال مدريد يريد فك عقدة الريازور وسيواجه ديبورتيفو لاكرونيا ( تقديم ) }

    سوريانو في إشارة ل مياتوفيتش : ’ هناك شخص في الرّيال ليس ب مستوى النادي

    الفرق كبير جدا بين "نكرة لشبونة" و "بيليه الجديد" !!!!!!

    دي لا ريد سر هذا الفريق يكمن في وحدته [ مقابلة ]

    شوستر : انا من قررت استبعاد روبينهو و هدفي هو كسر حاجز الريازور [ مؤتمر صحفي ]

    برشلونة يكرّم تشابي بعقد "لمدى الحياة"  –

    فيا يقرر الاستمرار مع فالنسيا  –

    الدوري الانكليزي يفضل لارسون  –

    صامويل ايتو في أربع مواسم سجل 95 هدف ..  –

    بيب يعلن القائمة المواجهة لنومانثيا .. !!  –

    المفاوضات بين ريال مدريد و أشبيلية بشأن كابيل مازالت مستمرة !!

    برشلونة بحلته الجديدة يسعى لكبح هيمنة ريال ..  –

    25 مليون يورو من ريال مدريد لضم هونتيلار  –

    بانيغا ومادورو خارج حسابات إيميري  –

    بويان يمدد عقده مع برشلونة حتى عام 2013م  –

    تشلسي يطلق صفارات الإنذار:" إمّا قبول العرض اليوم او كسر المفاوضات" وكواريزما هو
    الحل  –

    رئيس فالنسيا يؤكِّد مفاوضات ريال مدريد مع خواكين

    بيريز : نحن لسنا ثاني اقوى فريق في المجموعة  –

    الكون : اللقاء سيكون بين أتلتيكو و الليفر و ليس توريس و أغويرو

    August 30, 2008 at 5:32 pm

  2. Unknown

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    October 13, 2008 at 4:30 am

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