Incredulous or incredible: when you need to convey disbelief

I’m going to tell you whether to use the word incredulous or incredible — but first, an explanation.

A few years ago, as a member of the style committee at the Winnipeg Free Press, I worked on a series of posts on misused words, grammar mixup and other style problems. Editor Julie Carl, reporter Mary-Agnes Welch, and I sent out what we hoped were helpful reminders and also took suggestions from other editors and reporters about stylistic errors they wished people would avoid. We called ourselves the “Word Nerds.”

We kicked around the idea of putting the pieces together in a collection of some kind, but our audience — the newspaper staff — had already seen all of them. Mary-Agnes and Julie have since moved on. I still think these are worth posting beyond the newspaper’s halls — because, let’s face it, there are word-nerds everywhere — so over the next while I’ll be updating this blog with some of the best ones. Hope you enjoy them.

Incredulous or incredible

incredulous or incredible

When it comes to saying something is impossible or difficult to believe, the word is “incredible.”  As in:

CORRECT: She made the incredible claim she had cooked the 20-pound turkey to perfection  in less than five minutes. (The claim was difficult to believe.)

When describing someone’s reaction to something that is difficult to believe, use “incredulous.” As in:

CORRECT: She claimed she had cooked the 20-pound turkey to perfection in less than five minutes. Her supper guests were incredulous. (That is, they did not believe it.)

You cannot use one in the place of the other!

INCORRECT: She made the incredulous claim she had cooked the 20-pound turkey to perfection in less than five minutes.

A person, who is capable of believing or disbelieving something, can be incredulous. A claim, promise, situation or anything else that may be unusual cannot be described in terms of its capacity to believe something, but it can be described in terms of its believability; that is, whether it is credible or incredible.

How about you? Any words you find yourself mixing up, or that you wish people would get “right” (it’s not always simple)? Let me know in the comments!

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