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Is the phrase "innocuous enough" valid? Or is the word innocuous a 'binary' word, in the sense that something is either innocuous, or is somewhat harmful/offensive?

Example usage:

Should we display a prompt before the user deletes an entry? Perhaps the deletion is innocuous enough that a prompt is not necessary.

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4 Answers 4

up vote 4 down vote accepted

"Innocuous" certainly could be used in a true/false sense: It's either innocuous or it's nocuous. (Actually I've never heard anyway say "nocuous", but thefreedictionary.com does indeed list it as a word meaning "harmful".)

But it's surely fair to say that something could be "only slightly harmful" or (with Douglas Adams) "mostly harmless", which would mean essentially the same thing as "innocuous enough". The idea of "causes harm" or "doesn't cause harm" isn't really a simplistic yes/no. Something could cause an amount of harm so small that it is debatable if it really "counts". Or there could be a chance that it will cause harm but it probably won't.

I had an elementary school teacher who once gave a high-pitched lecture on how it was meaningless to say "almost equal". She insisted that two things are either equal or they are not. But suppose we were discussing three people's incomes: Al made $20,000 last year, Bob made $1,000,000, and Cathy made $990,000. Surely it is fair to say that Bob's income and Cathy's are "almost equal" and both are very different from Al's. This would be especially true when it comes to measurements. If my scale is only accurate to the nearest pound, then a weight of 100 pounds and a weight of 101 pounds are so close that the difference might be due to rounding errors on the limits of the scale, and thus could quite reasonably be called "almost equal".

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"thefreedictionary"? Ug! Real dictionaries are so much better. Per the OED, nocuous means “Noxious, hurtful; venomous, poisonous.” It antedates innocuous, actually. It’s < classical Latin nocuus harmful < nocēre to hurt, injure. Its citations date from 1627 and extend through 1992. 1627 T. Crosfield Diary 13 Apr. (1935) 12 — Tobacco alwayes hurtfull & nocuous to yᵉ Liver. 1992 San Diego Union-Tribune (Nexis) 30 Jan. ʙ15 — To have that ‘other woman’, what's her name, accuse him of adultery is self-seeking, nocuous, media sensationalism. –  tchrist May 2 '12 at 20:24
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@tchrist, I don't understand about "real dictionaries." TheFreeDictionary.com entry merely lists the definitions from the American Heritage and Collins English Dictionaries—aren't those real dictionaries as well? Or were you simply making a comment on the superiority of the OED? –  zpletan May 3 '12 at 4:26

Even an absolute quality can have a threshold. But innocuous is relative. Some things are more innocuous than others. Also note that innocuous has multiple shades of meaning. It can simply mean harmless or it can mean insipid.

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"Innocuous" is a gradable adjective. The Oxford Collocations Dictionary (2009) lists the following modifiers for innocuous: fairly, pretty, quite, relatively; perfectly; totally; enough, as in "The question appeared innocuous enough, but I still did not trust her."

See other examples, with more and most:

She’s the most innocuous, benign person, of course. (The Times)

Three minutes later he was off, this time for a more innocuous challenge on the same player [...] (The Times)

And when critics questioned Rick Santorum on even the most innocuous matters [...] (The NY Times)

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enough in this instance is not used to qualify innocuous. Yes, don't be surprised. The real implication here is: the user's act of deleting being innocuous is reason enough not to warrant a prompt.

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What does enough qualify, if not innocuous? –  JeffSahol May 2 '12 at 20:24
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I thought I explained that in my answer: reason/ justification. –  Kris May 2 '12 at 20:31
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But neither appears in the sentence...what word or phrase in the sentence is modified by enough? –  JeffSahol May 2 '12 at 20:36
    
I suggest reading my answer, not parsing it for grammar. –  Kris May 2 '12 at 20:48
    
-1 I'm not trying to be critical in my questions, so sorry if you got that impression, which is the only reason I can see for the tone of your replies. –  JeffSahol May 2 '12 at 22:40

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