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Sometimes I use the word “incompetent” describe someone who is, typically, in over their head and not smart enough to at least know they are in over their head. But a friend recently used the word “inept” to describe such a person.

To me, “inept” refers to someone who is physically incompetent. Like a basketball player that can’t play the game — yet is somehow in the game — is inept in my mind. And someone who is incompetent can be incompetent in many ways, physically and even logically.

So are “inept” and “incompetent” interchangeable synonyms? Or is there more subtlety to their use?

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    I tend to match incompetence with intellectual ability and ineptness with physical ability.
    – Jim
    Aug 22 '20 at 17:52
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    @jim Strangely I have almost the opposite interpretation. I see a person's incompetence as being a lack of technical skill but their ineptitude as the inability to apply the skills they have (however inadequate) to the task in hand. For instance someone could be a perfectly competent joiner in terms of their woodworking skills but be unable to persist at the tasks required to build a wooden house. As such they would be a competent joiner but an inept house builder.
    – BoldBen
    Aug 22 '20 at 23:29
  • @BoldBen - it’s funny because I agree with your first sentence. i would describe it as “If they know what they have to do but just can’t seem to do it well because they are awkward, clumsy,etc they are inept. If they don’t know what they’re doing, they’re incompetent. That’s the sense on intellectual vs physical I’m thinking of. Your example seems to me to be not one of ineptitude but of laziness, or attention deficit or something similar.
    – Jim
    Aug 23 '20 at 0:03
  • @jim I think that ineptitude can be the result of one or more of attention deficit, laziness, the inability to grasp the wider sweep of the task, an over-attention to minutiae and so on. If someone, a competent joiner for example, is employed as a project manager their ineptitude caused by the inability to grasp the scope of the project would make them an incompetent project manager so the concepts are closely related.
    – BoldBen
    Aug 23 '20 at 8:11
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Incompetent implies inability (“not up to the job”) whereas inept could be a judgement on something not being done well on a particular occasion. For example it would not be a contradiction to say:

“No one disputes Charlie’s competence in managing his employees, but his handling of the dispute between John and James was manifestly inept.”

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  • Intersting. So “incompetence” falls on the person, but “inept” can be ascribed to the action. Aug 22 '20 at 22:26
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    @Giacomo 1968 I think that's usually the case. Aug 22 '20 at 22:33
  • Don't dictionaries allow 'inept' to modify a personal referent? Jul 19 at 13:51

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