Q&A: “Insightful” vs “inciteful”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, it's an insight job…

Q: Hi AWC, can you give me some insightful observations about being inciteful?

A: Do you mean “insight” vs “incite”?

Q: I do indeed. They sound exactly the same, but I’m guessing they’re quite different.

A: That’s right. For starters, “insight” is a noun and “incite” is a verb – quite different really.

Q: So an example might be, “if someone had more insight, they might not incite violence”?

A: Precisely. Macquarie Dictionary lists “insight” as a gained understanding. To be insightful is to show such an understanding of a situation or process.

Q: Is it an old word?

A: “Insight” is – more than 800 years old, originally “innsihht” with Dutch, German and Danish origins. The meaning hasn’t changed much over time – relating to sight with the ‘mind’s eye’. The word “insighted” was originally used as the adjective but was superseded by “insightful” from 1881 according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

Q: Okay, now for the inside information on “incite”?

A: This one had Latin origins (“incitare” – to put into rapid motion) but didn’t arrive in English until the mid-1400s, via the Old French “incitir” – meaning to stir up, excite or instigate.

Q: Funny how “excite” means the same thing as “incite”!

A: They’re similar – although “incite” is notably more violent. Meanwhile, “instigate” is also rather curious – a back-formation word from “instigation” in the 1540s. 

Q: What’s the difference between “incite” and “instigate”?

A: Well, to instigate is to cause an event to happen while to incite is to provoke a person or people to act in a certain way. They deal in similar areas, but “incite” typically captures the nasty stuff better.

Q: Any other interesting words?

A: Yep. The “cite” part relates to that whole “put in rapid motion” thing. Other words derived from this are “cinema”, “kinetic”, “solicit” and even “telekinesis”.

Q: Very moving stuff. Now, what about adjectives of “incite”?

A: Curiously, there has been a parade of adjectives over the years – from “incitative” (approx 1500) to “incitatory (approx 1600), “incitive” (1725) and even “incitory” (1941). However, there’s actually no mention of “inciteful” in the official etymology.

Q: Wait, what?

A: No mention. And yet you won’t find ANY of the above adjectives in Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary except for “inciteful” – which it lists as “originally US – acting as an incitement to hostility towards others”.

Q: Okay, so it’s a rogue Americanism?

A: Not so fast. America’s main dictionary, Merriam-Webster, has NO listing for “inciteful” – yet it DOES list others such as “incitive” and “incitory” as adjectives!

Q: This feels like we’re about to uncover a huge conspiracy. Like that Tom Hanks movie about the secret world hidden in plain sight…

A: Oh, you mean The Da Vinci Code?

Q: What? No! I’m talking about Toy Story.

A: Um, yep okay. So anyway – while the US may have been the first to use it, they seem to have turned their back on it. “Inciteful” appears in some dictionaries, but not all.

Q: So, it’s possible that some people might see “inciteful” and think the person meant to spell it “insightful”? That’s awkward!

A: It certainly is, depending on the context. For example, consider the difference in meaning between, “your comments were viewed as very insightful/inciteful”. For that reason, we recommend keeping away from “inciteful” as an adjective.

Q: What should I use instead?

A: Rephrasing the sentence is best. For example, instead of “her actions at the rally were inciteful”, perhaps try “her actions incited the crowd”. It avoids confusion.

Q: Thanks for your insights today. I’ll be sure to cite them next time this comes up!

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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