I watched a TV show where a group of dancers were performing a number. After that, the host interviewed one of the audience and he was told that the Group A's performance was effortless and gave a low rating to that group. However one of judges questioned the audience why did he gave a low score if the performance was effortless.

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    The use of effortless in this context is incorrect. Could have been 'did not put in sufficient effort (to deserve)'. 'Effortless' per se has no negative connotations. – Kris May 22 '14 at 6:15
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    The presenter used the word wrong. The presenter meant "they made no effort". The word "effortless" is indeed the highest form of praise. You might say something like, Shakespeare or Da Vinci were effortless geniuses, or, "they made it look effortless". – Fattie May 22 '14 at 6:42
  • Most dictionary definitions show effortless to mean requiring no effort; easy. A low score for an easy performance seems right. – Frank May 22 '14 at 8:21
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    Was whoever said that a native speaker? I am not a native speaker, and although I find the usage of this word in that context rather uncommon, it would not immediately appear wrong to me. I would interpret it as "it did not require them any effort to do this performance, thus I rated them low because all the others really put effort into it". – PlasmaHH May 22 '14 at 15:32
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    @Frank: Totally wrong. You use "effortless" to indicate that something required no effort and was easy for the person who did it, while typically requiring lots of effort from other people. A piano performance should be effortless; if the audience notices the effort, it distracts from the music and the player should play something easier. – gnasher729 May 22 '14 at 18:56

Usually, if I hear someone's performance described as having been effortless, I assume it was so well executed that every aspect of it looked as though it flowed naturally -- in other words, it was done without apparent effort.

In the case you describe, effortless seems to have been used with a different sense in mind. Specifically, whoever applied the term when describing the dancers' performance was implying that they had made no effort -- in other words, they had not worked very hard on the standard of their performance.

This usage is distinctly different to the normal sense in which the word is applied.

  • Erik, i wouldn't say "usually" in the first para - that's simply the meaning of the word. The presenter simply misspoke. – Fattie May 22 '14 at 6:42
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    @JoeBlow - Please feel free to add any further pedantic comments you may have. – Erik Kowal May 22 '14 at 6:45
  • LOL fair enough Erik. But, I hope you can see what I'm getting at: I'm on a bit of a rant against "overly-explanatory" answers on this site. (EXAMPLE: english.stackexchange.com/questions/105695 ) The amazingly simple, full, totally complete answer here is "(a) the presenter completely used the word wrong, such as when somenoe thinks penultimate means really good" and (b) for the meaning, check a dictionary". I feel your answer (for example) muddies the waters. The presenter (as presented here) did not "have a different sense in mind..", the presenter is an idiot, or, simply misspoke. – Fattie May 22 '14 at 6:49
  • So, I'm sorry. I'm sorry you got caught up in this whole horror. I love your icon, though :O – Fattie May 22 '14 at 6:50
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    I think this is the strongest answer to the OP's question. On the surface, effortless seems to imply "absence of effort," but the focus of the term (as most English speakers use it) is on the appearance of (not) making an effort. A superb athlete can make some remarkable feat look effortless in part because so much effort has gone into training. The judge here meant something like "low-effort." Interestingly, both effortful and labored often show up in contexts where they are intended as criticisms—not of effort per se, but of effort that is somehow unskilled, of trying too hard. – Sven Yargs May 22 '14 at 17:14

If I say I could carry out a task effortlessly that means that it will be easy for me to do it nicely without putting in much efforts. That implies I am naturally good at it.

It is used in a positive manner. The first judge used it incorrectly.

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    You'll soon have 100,000 points with answers that good! – Fattie May 22 '14 at 7:07
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    When you say effortless you imply (it looks) but if you specifically say it WAS effortless there is an argument that technically that is a correct but uncommon usage. In reality for that meaning someone would use a word like lazy. – JamesRyan May 22 '14 at 16:48
  • You are right , it would depends on the tone too in some situations but generally it is related to the world natural : not requiring effort. If you are to use it to define someone's performance, it would always be positive eg : it was an effortless performance , will be a praise. – Veronica Diamond May 23 '14 at 6:02

I think this is a good question because "effortless," in my opinion, is another example of a contronym: it can mean both showing no effort (I.E. seemingly "doggin' it"), as well as needing no effort (I.E., performed with ease). The former connotes a lack of commitment, while the latter implies talent that exceeds that normally required to achieve success.

I think the first definition is widely misinterpreted as one who is actually doggin' it, when in reality it only appears that way (which leads to the second, and I believe more accurate, definition).

  • It doesn't mean "showing no effort". It can be wrongly used by someone who wants to say "showing no effort" but uses the wrong term instead. – gnasher729 May 22 '14 at 18:58

It sounds like that audience member was confused with the common usage of 'effortless'. There's a distinct difference between saying that the performance was effortless and saying that the performance appeared effortless.

It is far more common in my experience to hear how the actions of some skilled professional appeared effortless. That is, that they are so good at what they do that, to the layman, it appears as if they make no effort at all and yet achieve amazing feats (such as graceful dancing).

It's much rarer to hear the word 'effortless' used to mean that someone has performed so poorly that they seemed to have made no effort.

Since 'effortless' is almost exclusively used to denote expertise, I'd say the audience members' use of the word was incorrect in this context.

  • With answers that good, all you need is to change to an actual nickname, and you'll soon have 100,000 fun points! – Fattie May 22 '14 at 6:43
  • Ah! I hadn't noticed. How ironic that Joe Blow tells me I need an actual nickname. Thanks. Fun points, here I come! – SomewhatRegrettably May 22 '14 at 7:22
  • Dude! "joe blow" is very much a nickname!! Being so old, I'm very scared of revealing my identity on the internet so I always use a non de plume. TBC you could use either a nickname, or, just your real name. Cheers! – Fattie May 22 '14 at 7:28

My dictionary gives the following explanations and examples for "effortless": Requiring no physical or mental exertion. _I went up the steps in two effortless bounds. Each skill is practiced to the point that it becomes effortless." Achieved with admirable ease: "Her effortless sense of style".

Anyone using the word to indicate something negative just uses it wrong.


I think one has to distinguish between the meaning of a word (as defined in a dictionary) and the way in which it is used (commonly or in a particular case).

Given that it is perfectly possible to use the word "effortless" in a way that doesn't imply any kind of value judgment on the speaker's part, it is clear that there are no positive or negative implications analytically attached to its meaning.

When you use a word in a particular context, however, its meaning will also depend on the linguistic context and the particular situation in which it is used. In this sense, although the first member of the audience didn't use the word "effortless" correctly, we still understand what he meant, because otherwise we wouldn't even be able to judge whether he used the word correctly or not.

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