Don’t mix up
turgid and turbid

“He’s very fond of turbid prose,” a student wrote in a book report. When she got her paper back, the teacher had changed “turbid” to “turgid” and had deducted a point for incorrect word usage.

But the student wasn’t going down without a fight, and appealed. The teacher pulled out his copy of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and turned to the definition of “turgid”:

1: being in a state of distension: swollen, tumid <turgid limbs>; especially: exhibiting turgor

2: excessively embellished in style or language: bombastic, pompous <turgid prose>

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The student produced her own copy of the dictionary and pointed to the definition of “turbid”:

1 a: thick or opaque with or as if with roiled sediment <a turbid stream>

b: heavy with smoke or mist

2 a: deficient in clarity or purity: foul, muddy <turbid depths of degradation and misery — C. I. Glicksberg>

b: characterized by or producing obscurity (as of mind or emotions) <an emotionally turbid response>

Would you have restored the point?

The argument might have been moot had the student or the professor used the online version of Merriam-Webster’s, or if the professor had questioned the student as to her purpose in using the word. Under the definition of “turbid” is this note:

Turbid and “turgid” (which means “swollen or distended” or “overblown, pompous, or bombastic”) are frequently mistaken for one another, and it’s no wonder. Not only do the two words differ by only a letter, they are often used in contexts where either word could fit. For example, a flooded stream can be simultaneously cloudy and swollen, and badly written prose might be both unclear and grandiloquent. Nevertheless, the distinction between these two words, however fine, is an important one for conveying exact shades of meaning, so it’s a good idea to keep them straight.

If the student truly meant that the author’s writing produced obscurity of meaning or was unclear, she should get the point back. If she meant it was bloated, overwritten, or pompous, she should lose it.

Then again, what difference does it make? In this case, no one is going to think she thought the writing was lovely.

“Turgid” is from the Latin “turgidus,” or swollen, while “turbid” is from the Latin “turbidus,” or confused. They have traveled together since they were introduced to English in the same decade, around 1620, and apparently have been tripping over each other since.

The most frequent occurrence of “turgid” is in botany, describing how much water a plant is holding; the most frequent use of “turbid” also relates to water, usually referring to how clear (or not) it is. That could add to the confusion.

Garner’s Modern English Usage indicates that the most frequent misuse is when “turgid” is used instead of “turbid,” and puts it at Stage 1 on the five-stage Language-Change Index, meaning the use might get a student expelled. Using “turbid” instead of “turgid” seems to occur less frequently; a Nexis search turns up only nine instances of “turbid prose” (and one of those refers to “his turgid and turbid prose”), and Garner’s doesn’t mention it.

No one mentions a misspelling of “turgid” that occurs every so often, deliberately or not. Because “turgid” sounds so much like a euphemism for fecal matter, it occasionally acquires a second letter “d.” We can’t link to most of them here, because they’re being used with other words that might make you wince.

But we’ll link to this one misspelling, because it’s a cautionary tale in internet literacy. It’s on a site called Quizlet, which wants learning to be fun. It was in this case.

If your student used “turdgid” in a paper, would you subtract a point?

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.