English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Skeptics argue that these kinds of initiatives are doomed to remain perennially peripheral and ineffectual.

Intuitively, changing ineffectual to ineffective in the sentence above seems to leave the meaning unchanged. Is there any difference between the two options?

Here is the original source of the sentence.

share|improve this question
I don't know why someone voted to close without giving a reason. I haven't yet checked a dictionary to see if there's any clear semantic space between the two words, but certainly I couldn't summarise very briefly the different contexts in which I would use each word. – FumbleFingers Jul 28 '11 at 14:15
...there is also inefficacious, which seems much the same to me, if a trifle "wordy". – FumbleFingers Jul 28 '11 at 14:18
It seems to me that the majority of answers provided are completely ineffectual in resolving the stated dilemma. They could be, however, simply ineffective. – user65823 Feb 14 '14 at 6:01
up vote 2 down vote accepted

I tend to think of these as having a slight difference:

  • If something is ineffectual, it is not having an effect right now.
  • If something is ineffective, it has been shown not to have an effect in the general case or the current situation.
  • If something was ineffectual, it wasn't working as of the time context of the sentence.
  • If something was ineffective, it did not work in a particular past situation.

So, ineffectual in my mind refers to the state of it having an effect at a specific point in time, either right now or at some definite point in the past. Ineffective refers to the state of it having an effect in general, or during a given "event" in the past (which may not be given a definite place in the timeline).

Disclaimer: this difference is probably all in my head, it's just my opinion, no research to back it up.

share|improve this answer
I agree with what you are saying however it makes me think that ineffectual was the wrong choice in the sentence above. – Chad Jul 28 '11 at 17:40

I neither agree nor disagree with the fine distinction made by @KeithS, but I think most people will side with OP's "intuition", and think both words "mean" the same.

The biggest effect of changing ineffectual to ineffective is that the sentence would be more "snappy" and "modern". Here's a chart showing the written usage trend...


It's my guess that in using the older/more established/archaic term, the writer primarily intended to add a touch of gravitas to his text, rather than because it conveyed something subtly different to ineffective (along the lines of any suggestions here, or indeed any others). This I think is a common device in "persuasive writing", which does appear to be the context.

share|improve this answer
Or that graph could indicate that command of the English language has been decreasing over time. – plntxt Nov 6 '15 at 16:26
@Jim: I don't really follow the logic of that. One word has declined, while another with similar/identical meaning has gained traction. Articulate speakers should be aware of both words, and ordinarily you'd expect them to use the one that's more common today - unless they're deliberately stepping out of line for reasons of style/nuance as suggested in my answer. Doggedly sticking with dated/outmoded usages doesn't strike me as evidence of "good command of English". Quite the reverse, in fact. – FumbleFingers Nov 8 '15 at 15:18

Ineffectual, in my opinion, carries a more pejorative shade of meaning than the strictly utilitarian ineffective, which means simply not effective. Ineffectual might be synonymous with "vain, useless, futile" while ineffective refers strictly to a specific outcome or aim not being realised.

share|improve this answer
I completely agree with Ricardo. "Ineffectual" implies the actor is at fault. "Ineffective" implies fault could be beyond the actor's control. – user42860 Apr 20 '13 at 0:30

Just as continual means "apparently continuous", perhaps ineffectual means "apparently ineffective".

share|improve this answer
I think I might have to disagree with the analogy of continual/contiunous "is to" ineffectual/ineffective, being that doing something continually implies a repetition, whereas a continual event isn't necessarily continuous (i.e., without stopping), and by the way, wouldn't a quick check of the OED or Webster's provide the quickest solution? Apart from us old folks having more or less an equivalent to a language corpus in our brains due to vast experiences, there's no harm in consulting an engraved authority :) – user149561 Nov 30 '15 at 9:32

Ineffective and ineffectual—both—refer to failure. But only ineffectual refers to the kind of failure that happens when the effort was weak, impotent, and/or incompetent.

  • If a team of great lawyers fail to win a vigorously debated case, their efforts have been ineffective but not ineffectual.

  • If, however, a team of pee-wee baseball players fail to defeat the New York Yankees, their efforts have been both ineffective and ineffectual.

share|improve this answer

I tend to think of ineffective as an assessment or statement of the 'result'; whereas ineffectual is a statement of an ongoing status. In other words, ineffectual is the state of actually being ineffective. Something can only be ineffectual if it is being used; whereas many things that are not in use - objects and processes included - are know to be ineffective or can be assessed as such whilst never actually having been used.

share|improve this answer

The accepted answer is close but incorrect.

Ineffective means "not effective"

Usage: The program to reduce childhood obesity was ineffective.

Ineffectual means "will never produce the desired effect"

Usage: Programs to reduce childhood obesity are ineffectual.

From the original sample "doomed to remain perennially peripheral" is superfluous language which poetically implied "ineffectual". A better phrasing would've been "Skeptics argue these kind of programs are ineffectual."


share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.