By Dr Oliver Tearle
Incompetence is everywhere, it seems. Whether it’s an inept colleague, a less-than-proficient employee, or a student or pupil who seems to lack the basic skills required of someone at their level, we often need to refer to someone’s incompetence.
But it’s a rather harsh word. Calling someone ‘incompetent’ can seem rather blunt and direct, and might not help them to improve. Sometimes, then, we need to cushion the blow a little, and find some alternative way of calling someone ‘incompetent’ without saying so in so many words.
Below, we discuss some of the best synonyms for incompetent and offer some ways in which they might be employed in speech or writing. We also offer some useful antonyms for incompetent.
Let’s start with a brief definition of the word ‘incompetent’. If someone is incompetent, it means they are not competent, of course – and competent is from the Latin meaning ‘proper, fit, or lawful’. It’s related to the verb compete, which, despite its modern implications of rivalry and being pitted against others, actually means ‘strive together’. So someone who is incompetent is UNSUITABLE or UNFIT for a particular task or role, but also INCAPABLE of doing something. They are, in other words, UNABLE to perform a particular role.
If being unsuited to a particular job or responsibility is the issue, a more colloquial synonym for unsuitable or unfit is NOT CUT OUT FOR, as in ‘I don’t think I’m cut out for the medical profession’.
Being completely USELESS at a job, trade, or school subject, is quite different, of course. That implies a more damning judgment on the person’s general capabilities, and is one of the stronger synonyms for incompetent.
INEPT is perhaps slightly less strong, though still very critical of a person’s skills. This has more in common with unsuitable and unfit, because it originally meant ‘not adapted or adaptable to a particular use’: the -ept bit is from apt, so the word means ‘not apt’ (or appropriate). It’s one of those words, like disgruntled, where we use the negative form but there is no corresponding antonym in common use: we don’t say gruntled, and we don’t describe someone who is suited to something as ept.
The word is especially common as a synonym for incompetent when social skills are being discussed: i.e., someone not good at being at ease in social situations might be described as socially inept.
There are quite a few incompetent synonyms which imply a lack of skill or ability in a particular field. These include INADEQUATE, INSUFFICIENT, LACKING, and WANTING, as in the phrase to be found wanting. The word want is an old synonym for lack.
If someone is competent, their methods and actions are effectual or effective, so if they’re incompetent, we can employ the antonyms of these adjectives: INEFFECTUAL and INEFFECTIVE. Although these two words are synonyms for incompetent, they are softer and more diplomatic than that adjective, in that they throw the emphasis on the effect (or lack thereof) of the person’s talents, rather than directly calling the person out for an out-and-out lack of talent, as it were.
However, perhaps the problem isn’t a lack of talent but a lack of training. Perhaps the person is simply INEXPERIENCED and therefore they’re a little GREEN or WET BEHIND THE EARS because of their CALLOW youth and relative lack of experience in the field?
However, perhaps the problem isn’t that they lack experience, but that, despite years of working at something, their work is still AMATEURISH or UNPROFESSIONAL – these two words being especially common when we’re talking about tradesmen or craftsmen. So we might say that a mason’s building-work is a little amateurish or that the plumber’s work on the bathroom was unprofessional.
Words with a similar meaning, indicating a lack of a specific skills set or training, include INEXPERT, UNSKILFUL, UNSKILLED, UNTRAINED, and UNQUALIFIED.
But if physical incompetence is the problem – for instance, someone is slapdash or not very careful when completing a DIY job or similar – there’s a series of synonyms revolving around this deficiency, which include CLUMSY, MALADROIT, GAUCHE, AWKWARD, and BUNGLING.
Maladroit and gauche are worth spending a moment considering, because their etymologies lay bare the prejudice against left-handed people that has existed in many societies for centuries. The word maladroit is from the prefix mal-, denoting something bad, and adroit, from the French droit, meaning ‘right’. In other words, someone who is adroit is skilled, and skill is associated with right-handedness. Another way of describing skill is the word dexterity, which is from the Latin dexter which also means ‘right’.
By contrast, someone who is gauche is clumsy and awkward, from the French meaning ‘left-handed’, because left-handed people were associated with a lack of skill and physical awkwardness. The prejudice against left-handed people is also there in the word sinister, from the Latin for ‘left’, and again implying that people skilled with their left-hand rather than their right should be viewed with suspicion, for being ‘different’.
WORTHLESS is an altogether more straight-forward, and straight-talking, synonym for incompetent, but think of the poor person who is being so described.
As well as these well-known useful synonyms for incompetence, there are also some rarer words which are well worth resurrecting, in the appropriate contexts. For instance, a BATIE-BUMMIL is an old slang term for a useless bungler. A KEFFEL is a worthless or clumsy person, while the glorious term CUMBER-GROUND can be used to describe a person who needlessly takes up space, especially someone who isn’t good at their job.
INCONCINNITY, meanwhile, is another term for ineptitude.
The most obvious antonym for incompetent is, unsurprisingly, COMPETENT, although PROFICIENT is a close second. SKILFUL, SKILLED, EXPERT, SUITABLE, CAPABLE, PROFESSIONAL, EXPERIENCED, and QUALIFIED can also be used in contrast to their negative versions mentioned above.
And returning to the maladroit, being ADROIT or DEXTROUS is another way of saying the opposite of incompetent.