Synonym Smash #1: ‘intelligent’ and ‘knowledgeable’

October 1, 2008

Image by A.K. Photography

Image by A.K. Photography

Intelligence is an amorphous concept that is difficult to measure. This may contribute to the confusion between the terms ‘intelligent’ and ‘knowledgeable’; if our best and brightest minds continue to argue about the nature of intelligence, how can the rest of the populace pin it down?

Even the APA dedicated an entire task force to searching for answers to the biggest questions about intelligence and their only conclusion was that “finding the answers will require a shared an sustained effort as well as the commitment of substantial scientific resources.”

In the meantime, many psychological researchers continue to use standardized intelligence quotient scores to measure intelligence for purposes of study. To define intelligence, they usually use some variation of this tautology: intelligence is what intelligence tests measure. Great – that’s no help at all. What aspect of human intellect is isolated and represented by IQs? Originally, IQ tests were intended to determine academic performance, and though intelligence measurement has undergone countless revisions since that time, some of the principles are still the same. Verbal, spatial and mathematical ability are central to determining intelligence using modern scales.

But is that intelligence? Many people in the general population and great minds that specialize in intelligence research would disagree, and the latter do so vigorously. These evaluations of intelligence are felt to be an incomplete snapshot of human intellect, only capturing a single aspect: knowledge! That’s where the term ‘knowledgable’ comes in. Can someone be intelligent without being knowledgeable? What about the other way around? The answer is “Yes,” on both accounts.

A knowledgable person has a bank of experience or information available to them that they can use to resolve problems. Any specialist will testify that it takes a lot of experience or studying to reach their level of expertise. Let’s even say that this specialist is considered to be quite intelligent by peers and the general population alike. However, that same specialist can probably point you to a colleague or rival with the same bank of experience that they think is about as sharp as a boulder. Intelligence and knowledge do not always overlap.

Gardner, founder of the Multiple Intelligences Theory, would argue that an engineer and a talented musician are equally intelligent, but in different ways. There’s a good chance that standardized tests would disagree. In the end, intelligence scales measure something less than intelligence and more than knowledge, but they do help us draw the line between the two.

I’ll leave you with the dictionary’s definition for both terms so you can compare and contrast:

1. having good understanding or a high mental capacity; quick to comprehend, as persons or animals: an intelligent student.
2. displaying or characterized by quickness of understanding, sound thought, or good judgment: an intelligent reply.
3. having the faculty of reasoning and understanding; possessing intelligence: intelligent beings in outer space.
4. Computers. pertaining to the ability to do data processing locally; smart: An intelligent terminal can edit input before transmission to a host computer. Compare dumb (def. 8).
5. Archaic. having understanding or knowledge (usually fol. by of).

Note the archaic definition.

1. highly educated; having extensive information or understanding; “knowing instructors”; “a knowledgeable critic”; “a knowledgeable audience” [syn: knowing]
2. alert and fully informed; “a knowing collector of rare books”; “surprisingly knowledgeable about what was going on”
3. thoroughly acquainted through study or experience; “this girl, so intimate with nature”-W.H.Hudson; “knowledgeable about the technique of painting”- Herbert Read [syn: intimate]

We have debated the nature of intelligence for decades and will continue to do so for decades more. The important thing to take away from this Synonym Smash is this: using the word ‘intelligent’ in conversation or writing will leave the meaning open and abstract. If you want to peg down a more specific feature of human intellect, the term ‘knowledgeable’ does the job.

Put that on your intelligence test, Binet!



  1. This is a much-needed explication for most people. It’s amazing how interchangeable people believe these concepts to be, when they are so far from being one and the same.

    A good resource for looking up some of these types of errors can be found at the Common Errors in English website: http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/errors.html

    It’s a site run by someone out of Washington State University. I don’t agree with all of his “rules,” as I feel that there is sometimes more flexibility to certain aspects of English than he asserts, but I think that it’s a very good resource, nonetheless.

  2. Thanks, I’ll check it out. The difficult part about writing this blog will be walking the line between hard English ‘rules’ and flexibility. That’s the point, I guess – figuring out what’s open to interpretation and what’s really not.

  3. The thing that bothers me about some of the information on his website, and really, about a lot of information on language that’s out there, is that it is so focused on being prescriptive that it ignores language evolution. The truth, whether these people like it or not, is that language changes. It is now, and always has been, undergoing change. If this weren’t the case, French would still be Latin. If language didn’t change, I could read Beowulf in its original form with ease. Words, phrases, and rules are constantly in flux.

    I don’t want to give the impression, however, that I think it’s perfectly acceptable to write or speak however one wants, just because language is always changing. That isn’t my opinion at all. Rather, I think that clarity and precision of language are most important. Above all, language should ease and facilitate communication. So, as a general rule, I am in favor of anything that serves a valid and useful purpose in relation to this goal. Likewise, I am not in favor of things that are elitist, exclusionary, or traditionalist just for the sake of being so.

    One example of something that I disagree with is the above website’s analysis of the word “cliché.” The author says, “One often hears young people say ‘That movie was so cliché!’ The standard expression is clichéd.” But the truth is, he’s being needlessly picky and is really just outright wrong. Dictionary.com, in a definition taken from the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, lists the second meaning for cliche as, “2. (in art, literature, drama, etc.) a trite or hackneyed plot, character development, use of color, musical expression, etc.” So, in fact, those “young people” are using the word perfectly correctly, in a manner that makes perfect sense, but not in a way that he finds pleasing.

    Another example of annoying grammar advice is the frequently heard rule that it is incorrect to end a sentence on a preposition. In fact, this is perfectly acceptable in English and is often necessary for clarity. The Dictionary.com usage note for prepositions states (any capitalized emphasis is mine), “The often heard but misleading ‘rule’ that a sentence should not end with a preposition is transferred from Latin, where it is an accurate description of practice. But English grammar is different from Latin grammar, and the rule DOES NOT fit English. In speech, the final preposition is NORMAL and idiomatic, especially in questions: What are we waiting for? Where did he come from? You didn’t tell me which floor you worked on. […] If the pronoun is ‘that,’ which cannot be preceded by a preposition, or if the pronoun is omitted, then the preposition MUST occur at the end: The librarian found the books that the child had scribbled in. There is the woman he spoke of.”

    Anyway, I agree with you–it is a very fine line. As I said, the way that I try to draw that line for myself is by determining what I feel helps or hinders communication the most. Whatever most serves language’s goals of clarity and precision is what gets my support, whether that be the traditional wisdom or a newfangled way of doing things.

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