Monday, November 8, 2010

Incongruous vs Incongruent

A reader recently wrote:
I'm wondering if you could provide any insight on incongruent vs. incongruous. I've heard many different explanations on how incongruent and incongruous are used differently but have yet to find one I'm satisfied with.
To be honest, I was stumped. A quick check of Webster's Collegiate Dictionary didn't help clarify. So I ordered Garner's Modern American Usage, "the preeminent contemporary guide to effective use of the English language," as it bills itself on the dust jacket. It just came in the mail today.

The entry under incongruous notes, "For the distinction between congruous and congruent, see congruent." Hmm. Flipping to that entry, I read, "these words are largely synonymous--meaning 'in agreement or harmony; appropriate'."

It turns out that incongruous ("not in harmony; unfitting") is "far more common" than congruous. Garner gives the example of "tinkling calls, so incongruous from such gigantic birds."

According to Webster's, incongruent is used in mathematics, such as incongruent triangles.

That said, I believe incongruous and incongruent are synonymous. I've seen them used interchangeably. It comes down to author preference, though incongruous seems to be more commonly used.

I'm not sure if my dear reader will be satisfied with this explanation. But I'm very satisfied to have Garner's Modern American Usage now on my bookshelf.

"Incongruous" T-shirt available at


  1. Thanks David! Your post is congruous with other sources I've read, but much more satisfying to read!

    1. I know that I'm entirely too late, but just to exemplify the flexibility of these terms, I would personally have chosen 'congruent' with this specific statement. It feels as though it fits better than the synonymous alternative. Cheers to anyone reading this post after June 28, 2012, and no offense, Clare.

  2. Ditto!

    I will have to check out Garner's. Thanks for the recommendation.

  3. To me, incongruous feels like it has a stronger negative connotation. When addressing a touchy matter, I'd feel more comfortable saying incongruent. (Though, as I type this, Google Chrome's spell check thinks incongruent is wrong...) -David

  4. Hi David,
    Interesting point. I don't read incongruous as negative. It doesn't seem like a value statement, but that depends on the context. I think I would still go with incongruous in most instances, unless it specifically relates to a mathematics.


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