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I once had a manager whose level of literacy was lacking to the extent that he would nearly always return my technical reports with sections rewritten such that they became either ungrammatical, or would convey an inaccurate notion to most readers (due to poor wording).

One of my colleagues would often describe that manager as being illiterate, or (if he happened to be feeling magnanimous), semi-literate.

I was wondering, are there any better words or phrases to describe someone who is prone to such things as grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, tautologies and misinterpretation of (relatively) common words/terms?

In other words I'm looking for descriptive terms, or even colloquialisms, that would apply to someone who is particularly poor at expressing themselves in writing.

As an aside, I am also interested in what words could be used to describe the opposite quality... I.e., descriptors for someone who is particularly articulate and eloquent in their writing style, and good at finding the most concise, and effective way of conveying even the most complex ideas. (Perhaps something along the lines of well-spoken, or well-versed in the art of written communication?)

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There's some excellent answers below, but I think semi-literate is still the best way to put it. –  Carl Smith Jul 20 '13 at 13:56

12 Answers 12

Eloquent comes to mind for a well-spoken orator or a good communicator.

The opposite is a little trickier. Searching on thesaurus.com for the antonym of eloquent I found inarticulate and unintelligible though I'd be careful using such terms about your boss. A more tactful way of describing a semi-literate person such as your boss would be to say that he doesn't exactly have a way with words.

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'ineloquent' doesn't work? How about 'inelegant'? –  Mitch Jun 29 '11 at 13:20
3  
Inelegant means something else entirely. I suppose ineloquent would work well though. –  Neil Jun 29 '11 at 13:33

To start with, there's using plain old "illiterate" as a noun instead of a verb. Other words to describe him or his writing which come to mind. I've sorted them into two lists, but obviously they overlap:

Him:

  • incoherent
  • inarticulate
  • uncommunicative
  • periphrastic (a great one for referring to the tautologies...or to him!)

His writing:

  • prolix (if he's wordy)
  • convoluted
  • unfathomable
  • perverse
  • discursive
  • ill-formed
  • inchoate
  • inarticulate
  • jumbled
  • muddled
  • rambling
  • incomprehensible
  • unintelligible
  • garbled
  • butcher of the English language
  • epistolaricly challenged (I've not seen many instances of epistolaricly, though)
  • convoluted
  • cryptic
  • misleading
  • Byzantine, Daedalean, Gordian
  • abstruse

Opposites:

  • Silver tongued
  • linguistically gifted
  • articulate
  • fluent
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While I really like quasi-literate, I'd opt for "unlettered". In truth, it's no kinder, but it comes across less harshly. I can even picture Palin using it as a compliment.

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Edited:

A word to describe a person skilled at writing is:

Wordsmith : an expert in the use of words.

A word to describe somebody poor at writing:

Wordmonger: a writer who uses language carelessly or pretentiously with little regard for meaning

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+1 for wordsmith, I quite like that word. –  bracho monacho Jun 29 '11 at 12:12
1  
I don't know about "Tunish." They haven't spelled "decipher" correctly, and it's only got ten votes. Sounds pretty much like an in-joke for a group of high school kids. I do like wordsmith, though. –  KitFox Jun 29 '11 at 12:31
    
"No wordsmith" would probably answer this question better. –  Vincent McNabb Jul 8 '11 at 12:32
    
Would you mind if I put that in? –  Thursagen Jul 8 '11 at 20:31

A person might be eloquent or articulate when talking, and they might be fluent and powerfully expressive when writing.

In contrast, a person might be inarticulate when talking, and awkward when writing. If they spout nonsense they might be facile. They might be insincere or glib.

They might suffer from dyslexia or the more modern affliction ADHD.

They might ramble incoherently or burble pointlessly. They might mutter and groan with their burden of incompetence. An unoriginal wit might note their verbal diarrhea, or their written chicken scratchings.

Their net contributions might amount to a visit from the confusion fairy who arrives only to sprinkle magic confusion dust that chokes and extinguishes clarity in any form.

If the confusion dust fails to obfuscate then the keystone cops or three stooges might be called on to further excite the literary hysteria or the oratory terrorism.

You might wonder if their works are best printed on soft, absorbent, double-ply toilet tissue as a convenience for the readership.

If your goal is satirical humour (and what better goal?) then look to find nuances of character that lend themselves to exaggeration. Ask them where, specifically, one finds the best spaghetti. Or in the vernacular of the lisping English stereotype, arks them where, pacifically, one finds the best biss ketty. Whether we should welease Wodger or Wodderwick.

And so on.

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Be direct, and say "Bad writer."

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Are you looking for a term to use to such a manager's face, or behind their back? I realize you said it's a former manager, implying no more in-person encounters (lucky you). But you -- and I, and everybody on this board -- will probably encounter similar fun people.

If it's behind their back, I vote for T.E.D.'s quasi-, semi-, or sub-literate.

If it's to their face, maybe they're an awkward writer. If the workplace is more high-toned, perhaps they're an inelegant stylist — or even an infelicitous one.

Better yet, instead of blaming the writer — blame the reader. Say that the work is confusable. You can always blame it on "kids these days", or declining schools, or text messaging, or whatever..

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People who can read and write but not sufficiently well to understand or convey complex ideas are called functionally illiterate.

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Depending on how insulting you want to make it, I'd probably go with (in descending order of "literacy") quasiliterate, semiliterate, or subliterate.

  • quasi- implies that the person sort of but not quite possessing that quality
  • semi- implies that the person is roughly have of the way there.
  • sub- implies the person perhaps has some of the basic skills, but really isn't.

Note that these terms apply to reading moreso than writing, so they may not be quite what you want. I think they will work though.

Also, to my mind the feature that makes the person in question most annoying would not be their lack of skill, but their ignorance of their own lack of skill. A person who can't write and thus leaves those who can alone would be far better. I'm sure there are lots of fine terms for such folks, but I just prefer to call them clueless.

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You could put an optimistic spin on things, and call the person pre-literate.

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A standard expression applied to such a person is simply to say that he's a Poor communicator.

There are many other ways of saying the same thing, of course. I myself would be inclined to say He lacks verbal skills.

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disarticulate

2.) Break up and disrupt the logic of (an argument or opinion)
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Although “dolt” was the first word to come to mind... ; ) –  ipso Jun 6 at 17:35
    
You’ve quoted the meaning of a verb, which is not a very good fit for a word used to describe a person. Were you thinking of an adjective disarticulate that would essentially be the same as inarticulate? –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 6 at 17:55
    
But “disarticulate” (adj.) goes to 11... Clearly I know what I'm talking about. –  ipso Jun 6 at 17:58

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