Chaotic - inchoate - incoherent

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The three adjectives chaotic, inchoate and incoherent are sometimes confused. This may be by writers who do not use the words much, and are misled by the use of '-c-' and '-h-' without the '-ch-' sound of church, combined with an '-i-' and an '-o-'; they are certainly all quite close in meaning. Do not confuse them in academic writing.

  • Chaotic (pronounced with an initial 'k-' sound - the usual English realization of the Greek letter χ 'chi', overall 'kay-OTT-ic', IPA: /keɪ 'ɒtɪk/) is the adjective formed from the noun chaos ('KAY-oss', /'keɪ ɒs/). Chaotic means
    • In its most literal meaning 'related to Chaos'
    • By transferred meaning, 'confused' or 'disordered'. This can be on a huge scale, such as 'the chaotic vision of hell to be seen in Hiroshima after the Atomic Bomb explosion in 1945', or on a more hyperbolic scale, such as 'the chaotic pile of papers on my desk'.
  • Inchoate, also pronounced with a hard '-c-' sound for '-ch-'. 'INK-oh-ate', /'ɪn kəʊ eɪt/ or 'in-KOH-ate', /ɪn 'kəʊ eɪt/, is an adjective meaning 'new', 'only just begun', 'undeveloped' or 'immature'. (It is derived from the past participle form inchoatus of the Latin inchoare, an erroneous form of the "better" (Lewis and Short) incohare, 'to begin'.) It bears some similarity in the sense 'not yet of mature shape', 'as yet imperfectly finished' to the idea of chaotic, but academic writers should be careful not to use inchoate when they simply want to say 'a mess', 'a confusion'. Save inchoate for something that, far from having been reduced to disorder, has not yet reached a state of proper order.
  • Incoherent, which is less forgivably confused with the preceding, means 'without coherence', or 'lacking in order, logic or consistency'; 'rambling', 'disjointed', 'loose'; 'not properly connected'. This too has a similarity to the 'disordered' sense of 'chaotic', but is more limited and precise, and should not be confused with it.