Which Word Wednesday: Abstruse vs. Obtuse

By January 19, 2011 language No Comments

Moviegoers might rate a film by the story’s accuracy or entertainment value or unusual plot line. The most important factors for me when it comes to movies are character development and dialogue. Give me witty banter—such as in The Spanish Prisoner and Fantastic Mr. Fox—and deep characters—such as Pride and Prejudice (A&E version) and Chocolat—and I’m a happy gal.

One romantic comedy I appreciate for its dialogue (among other things) is You’ve Got Mail, which has inspired today’s Which Word Wednesday match-up between abstruse and obtuse. And in everyday conversation, these two adjectives are often swapped for one another in error.

But not in You’ve Got Mail. The words are both used properly, much to my delight. Kudos to the writers for proper word choice!

From my first viewing (I’ve seen too many times to count) of the movie, I noted that character Patricia (Parker Posey) used these words correctly. Such random language facts get lodged in my brain, taking up space that could be used for more useful things (calculating running splits, perhaps?).

Here’s how the Oxford American Dictionary defines them:

abstruse :: adjective
difficult to understand; obscure; usually implies that the subject would be puzzling to most anyone

obtuse :: adjective
annoyingly insensitive or slow to understand; a more formal word for slow-wittedness, but with a strong undercurrent of scorn

From these definitions, it seems that obtuse applies to a person whereas abstruse applies to a topic. Two sources support this theory with the following examples:

“Kant’s theory of knowledge is too abstruse for almost all elementary school students.”1

“I’m sorry if I’m being obtuse, but I do not understand the point.”2

And Mark Davidson sums it up like this in Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today’s American English Usage: “One way to avoid being obscure (“lacking clarity”) in your communication is to use plain English to explain subjects that are abstruse (“extremely technical and therefore incomprehensible to most people”).”3

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What’s my WWW verdict? These words are easily confused in conversation because they are similar in pronunciation. But that doesn’t mean we can use them all willy nilly. Words mean what they mean, and we have a wonderful tool called a dictionary to help us figure these things out. Some people think the English language is too abstruse, but I think it is easy to avoid being obtuse with just a little care.

What’s your verdict? Is the English language too abstruse for us to avoid being obtuse? Share your comments and be sure to cast your vote in the poll.

Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

1. Ron Evans, The Artful Nuance: A Refined Guide to Imperfectly Understood Words in the English Language (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2009), 2.
2. Dave Dowling, The Wrong Word Dictionary (Oak Park, IL: Marion Street Press, 2005), 13.
3. Mark Davidson, Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today’s American English Usage (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), 388.

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