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Which of the two usages is correct? Do both of them imply the same meaning?

  1. Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.
  2. Greed is, for lack of a better word, good.

I perceive a subtle difference between the meanings they imply, but I would like to be sure.

share|improve this question
Try it with a different pair of words, and the difference is pretty obvious. Juvenophilia, for lack of a better word, is pro-survival - obviously the word "juvenophilia" is the best term the writer could think of for what he's talking about. But with Juvenophilia is, for lack of a better word, pro-survival, it's clear "pro-survival" was the best description he could come up with. – FumbleFingers Mar 2 '12 at 14:27
I could have tried it with a different pair of words but I chose to go with the above used pair because of the sentence being near famous as Gordon Gekko's statement. – Serrated Symphony Mar 4 '12 at 15:10
I know your first version is the actual line in the 1987 movie Wall Street. I was just making the point that using this construction with two common words makes it much more likely people will "mis-parse" it and not realise which of the two words is the "iffy" one (I made that mistake myself, in the answer I've now deleted). And you've only got to Google your second version to see how often people (almost always unintentionally, I'm sure) mis-quote it. My versions aren't "famous", but both meanings would be quite clear to anyone. – FumbleFingers Mar 4 '12 at 16:27
@FumbleFingers: yes, on that count you are right. I didn't think in that direction while posing the question. Since, the sentence had "triggered" the question, I just chose to go along with it. Using other word-pairs, like the example you cited, makes the change of meaning amply clear (which I suspected but I wanted to be super sure!). Thnx :) – Serrated Symphony Mar 5 '12 at 5:36
Yeah - I certainly didn't mean to imply this was a "no-brainer" question. After all, I got it wrong myself. It was only after taking note of JLG's answer that I realised this. Some time after that it dawned on me using different words, and even later I discovered the (to me) interesting fact that many people mis-quote the line from the movie. I haven't checked, but I bet people usually put the "not quite right" word last when they use this "for lack of a better word" construction. Making the movie line somewhat atypical and hard to remember correctly. – FumbleFingers Mar 5 '12 at 13:53
up vote 3 down vote accepted

I think the position of "for lack of a better word" does change the meaning. The first implies that you cannot think of a better term for the word greed. The second implies that you cannot think of a better description for greed than the term good.

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On reflection, you're right, so I've deleted my claim that the two are equivalent. The first meaning is rather odd, but not ridiculous. The second strikes me as such a weird thing to say that I just didn't read it that way. OP really should have put forward a more credible pair of words in the first place. – FumbleFingers Mar 2 '12 at 14:18

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