'Enormity' or 'Enormousness'?

Is it enormity or enormousness? Traditionally, only one of these words means "huge."

Mignon Fogarty
1-minute read

Traditionally, usage guides said that enormousness described something huge, and enormity described something overwhelmingly horrible. Yet, today, enormity is also regularly used to describe something of staggering hugeness. Some people call this an error and some people call it language change.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage says there is no basis for the distinction between the words, and they also note that the word enormousness has always been less popular than enormity. Nobody makes the “mistake” of using enormousness to describe something monstrously horrible; they only use enormity to describe something huge. People just seem to prefer the word enormity

But to me, the real problem is that the muddled meanings can cause ambiguity. Consider this sentence:

The enormity of the landslide daunted the clean-up crew.

Was the problem huge or horrible? Who knows? You can’t tell from that sentence. 

The Quick and Dirty Tip is to avoid ambiguity by avoiding the word enormity in sentences where the meaning could be either “huge” or “horrible.” Instead of saying “The enormity of the landslide daunted the clean-up crew,” be more specific and say something like “The devastation caused by the landslide daunted the clean-up crew,” or “The sheer size of the landslide daunted the clean-up crew.” That way, your meaning will be clear.

enormity or enormousness?

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.

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