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To put it more specifically:

  • is inaudible reserved for when you can't hear anything, or does it also apply when you can't hear enough?
  • is there a more specific word than unintelligible to mean 'acoustically unintelligible'?
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I'd say that if you can't understand because it's too soft, then inaudible is fine, but if you can't understand because they weren't articulating properly, you should use unintelligible. The word mumble covers both situations. –  Peter Shor Jul 30 '12 at 15:28
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If you use unintelligible, you're in good company. From Charles Dickens: Then he comes back, pounces on the Chinaman, and seizing him with both hands by the throat, turns him violently on the bed. The Chinaman clutches the aggressive hands, resists, gasps, and protests. 'What do you say?' A watchful pause. 'Unintelligible!' –  Peter Shor Jul 30 '12 at 15:32
    
Try plain ol’ English/Germanic instead of fancy Latin, and you will see that there is little difference between couldn’t hear it, couldn’t make it out, couldn’t understand it, couldn’t tell what they were saying. You may be trying to put too fine a point on it by resorting to all these fanciful Latinate sesquipedalianisms. Use shorter words so folks know what you mean. –  tchrist Jul 30 '12 at 16:06
    
Incoherent would also work –  asymptotically Jul 30 '12 at 16:28
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2 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Inaudible is used in typed transcripts of taped police interviews where I come from, and covers both cases: it means that the words spoken cannot be heard clearly.

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Is that formalised or just commonplace? –  Hanno Fietz Jul 30 '12 at 15:39
    
In all the statement transcriptions I've seen (and there have been quite a few in the course of the day job) it's always been in capitals and angle-brackets: <INAUDIBLE>. –  Andrew Leach Jul 30 '12 at 15:41
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@HannoFietz You aren’t going to get much joy if you go looking for a formalization process in English. It just doesn’t happen very often. –  tchrist Jul 30 '12 at 15:52
    
@tchrist I took it to mean "formalised in my police force", which it appears to be. Police English is not generally great, but in this instance it actually seems reasonably sensible. –  Andrew Leach Jul 30 '12 at 15:56
    
@tchrist; but courtrooms are one of the few places it does. Witnesses and police officers are permitted a latitude that lawyers and stenographers are not. –  TimLymington Jul 30 '12 at 16:36
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Inaudible is used to describe a sound that is too soft to be heard. The reason why it is too soft is irrelevant. It also does not necessarily have to refer to a voice or speech, and, strictly speaking, implies that the sound cannot be heard at all.

As for alternatives to unintelligible, mutter might be a good choice. To emphasise the unintelligibility of a mutter, it can be described as an indistinct mutter or incoherent mutter or variants thereof.

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But if a sentence is inaudible, it cannot be heard as a sentence, which is not to say no sound can be heard at all. Similarly a sign may be illegible because too many letters are missing, even though those that remain are perfect. –  TimLymington Jul 30 '12 at 16:34
    
@TimLymington It is similar to the sentence, "I could not hear what was being said.". Taken literally, this would mean that you could not hear any sound at all. But in common usage, this could simply mean that you could not understand what was being said. Whether this was because the speaker had, for example, his microphone turned off, or if a crowd around you was too noisy, or if you suffer from a mild form of Presbycusis, will need to be explained further or taken for granted. –  coleopterist Jul 30 '12 at 16:47
    
My point was that there is no context where your 'strict/literal' meaning applies, unless after a hearing test you ask 'How many inaudible beeps were there?' –  TimLymington Jul 30 '12 at 18:37
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@TimLymington Did you know that the echolocation calls of bats are inaudible to us humans? Dogs, on the other hand, can hear things that are inaudible to us, and see things that are similarly invisible. –  coleopterist Jul 30 '12 at 20:22
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