Are you ineffectual? Or only ineffective?

How many times during the last several months have you heard a political candidate or a candidate’s policies referred to as either ineffective or ineffectual? Chances are, more times than you can count. But which is the correct term, and under which circumstances?


Probably only one person in ten will notice or care when one of these words is used instead of the other (and probably only one in ten of those people will both notice and care). If you’ve come here looking for the answer, you’re already in the minority. You might as well keep reading.

While these two words, ineffective and ineffectual, are different and are worth using in their separate and appropriate ways, the simple truth is that in modern American English the distinction barely exists. As a practical matter, the distinction is essentially lost in spoken language. When you’re committing something to paper, however, it can’t hurt — and can actually help — to show that you recognize the difference.

Let’s try to cover what ineffective and ineffectual have in common first. Both words are adjectives. Both are negatives (that in- prefix). Each is produced from a similar root adjective (effective and effectual), both ultimately deriving from effect.

In fact, if you look these terms up in a dictionary (or several, as I have for your reading enjoyment), don’t be surprised if one word is used in the definition of the other, or if the basic definitions vary only by a word or two. OED uses “ineffectual” as part of the definition of ineffective; while the first two words in its definition of ineffectual are “not effective.” ODO keeps the researcher on his toes by describing ineffective as “not producing any significant or desired effect,” while for ineffectual it offers “not producing any or the desired effect,” a shift of only one word and one position. Not to leave the other major dictionaries out of the party, AHD and Merriam-Webster use similar circular definitions.

With the difference in printed definitions down to hairsplitting and single word placements, it seems best to look to two other sources: the usage guides and the wisdom of the crowd.

The crowd (“the Internet” in this case) offers a handful of interesting discussions. A few begin to shed some light, but then fizzle. One goes off an interesting tangent (but still a tangent) on the overall value of synonym descriptions in dictionaries and thesauruses. Common conclusions regarding these two words include a putative distinction based on either degree or time: ineffective is absolute (it is or it isn’t, now and forever), while ineffectual can have shades (either in degree or in the time frame of ineffectiveness). A reading-between-the-lines approach of the dictionaries allows these conclusions (and I’m sympathetic to these interpretations), but neither is actually supported in the reference texts.

Most of these (typically short) online discussions last for a small handful of posts and then disperse in confusion: the majority of the language mavens on the Internet actually seem at a loss with this one. Those that aren’t defeated turn in the end to the usage guides, as I will in the next paragraph.

Most of the usage guides are silent, not even including a comment within their ever-present discussions of affect and effect. GMAU, however, offers some helpful advice, although you’ve got to fish a little for it within the entries for effectively and effectual.

For the positive forms (effective and effectual), GMAU concurs with the Internet opinion offered above (the ‘matter of degree’ approach). But curiously, it reverses the logic, noting that it’s actually effectual that means “achieving the complete effect,” (GMAU, 293) and thus suggesting by reciprocation that ineffectual is then the word for a complete lack of effect.

GMAU goes on to suggest that in actual use the primary distinction is between objects and persons. This turns out to be the critical distinction between these two words.

For the negative form, while effective and ineffective can apply to anything, animate or not, ineffectual usually describes a person (“an ineffectual manager”).  Effectual, GMAU points out, doesn’t carry the same baggage, and can describe non-persons as well. Thesauruses support this interpretation, with many of them including words like hopeless, impotent, vain, and weak among the synonyms for ineffectual. In fact, at least one thesaurus proves more useful than the dictionaries in this case. This is from dictionary.com (a source I don’t recommend using, unless your browser is well locked down):

ineffectual refers to a general or habitual lack of success in the carrying out of one’s projects; ineffective refers to a specific or definite failure to perform a task or accomplish a purpose

The reference to a person or personality is clear: “habitual lack of success” and “carrying out one’s projects” can only refer to a person; “specific or definite failure” and “perform a task or accomplish a purpose” can be interpreted more broadly.

With all this information uncovered, the distinction between ineffective and ineffectual begins to become clear. You can use ineffective in any situation, especially when the ineffectiveness is through no personal fault. But ineffectual should be reserved for situations in which you’re referring to a person:

“The levee proved ineffective against the hurricane’s 15 foot storm surge.” Why was the levee ineffective? Because it had been built to withstand a 12 foot flood, not because the levee itself was malicious or incompetent.

“Everyone agreed that the mayor’s leadership during the storm had been ineffectual.” The mayor was ill-prepared for this crisis, or lazy, or unable to inspire confidence in those around him. These problems were correctable or of his own making, therefore ineffectual is a better word than ineffective.

If something (or someone) fails because of its physical properties, or unanticipated events, or some other reason not due to human incompetence, it is ineffective. If a person fails because they aren’t up to the task, or aren’t willing to take the appropriate steps, or because their character prevents from them succeeding, they’re ineffectual.

Problem solved.

For those readers interested in a little more depth about the history of these words and their current place in the language, here are a few additional tidbits.

  • GMAU also suggests that effectual used for effective (and by association, ineffectual used for ineffective) is at “Stage 3″ of their Language-Change Index: “commonplace even among many educated people, but still avoided in careful usage.” That’s exactly the territory that a good writer operates in. GMAU notes a few examples of errors using effectually when effectively was clearly the correct word. This is different from the pejorative ineffectual sense described above, but worth noting.
  • Because I encounter ineffective much more often than ineffectual, it surprised me to learn that ineffectual is the older word. The first print citation of ineffectual dates to the early 15th century, beating ineffective by over 200 years.
  • Google searches indicate that in the wild ineffective is used about ten times more frequently than ineffectual. However, Google N-grams suggests that this wasn’t always so, and that it’s a moving target: prior to about 1810, ineffectual was roughly twenty times more common than ineffective. Ineffectual went into a slow decline while ineffective saw wider use until their curves crossed around 1910. Interestingly, the use of ineffective seems to have peaked in the 1980s, while ineffectual‘s decline stopped around 2000. Since then, relative frequency of the two words has been slowly equalizing: at the latest data point, ineffective was only about four times as common, and its decline has been steeper than ineffectual‘s rise. Should this trend continue, we can expect the words to be used about equally once again sometime within the next 25 years.

= = = =

Don’t forget about the new “Spot the Error” feature. A job credit will be awarded to the first user to find it. And because this is a longer post (over 1200 words) there *might* be a second error hidden in here…

(There is, and I’ll even give you a starting hint: one is a spelling error, the other a simple transposition of two words.)

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for nearly 15 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education. He has taught writing at the university level for a number of years.
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