This pair causes confusion because their spellings are identical save one letter. But the I and U make all the difference when it comes to properly describing someone. Let’s look at Oxford American Dictionary for starters:
ingenious :: adjective
(of a person) clever, original, and inventive; clever, skillful, resourceful; someone who is ingenious is both inventive and resourceful, with a dose of cleverness thrown in
ingenuous :: adjective
(of a person or action) innocent and unsuspecting; artless, frank; it implies the simplicity of a child without the negative overtones of naïve or gullible
See? With the switch of a letter, a person can go from being skillful to being artless. Letters are a powerful force, aren’t they? You have to mind your letters or you’ll find your compliment turning into an insult.
Here’s how I keep these words straight in my brain: Ingenious sounds whole lot like genius—not that those are synonyms, but the similar sound and positive slant keep them tied together. Ingenuous makes sense to me when I connect it to its better-known opposite, disingenuous, which means devious, dishonest, or pretending.
Mark Davidson gives this memory hook in Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today’s American English Usage: “An ingenious (“clever, resourceful”) person may pretend to be ingenuous (“lacking in cunning, without artifice”) in order to trick you. Such tricky people are described as disingenuous.”1
What’s my WWW verdict? You’ve heard it said that you should watch your Ps and Qs? I say also watch your Is and Us—one letter turns a clever person into a simpleton.
What’s your verdict? Are these words like identical twins—you know they are different words, but you can’t keep them straight? Share your comments and word mix-up stories.
Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.
1. Mark Davidson, Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today’s American English Usage (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), 318.