Convoluted means:

  • Especially of an argument, story, or sentence) extremely complex and difficult to follow

  • Intricate

  • Very complicated or detailed

Elaborate means:

Involving many carefully arranged parts or details; detailed and complicated in design and planning

Perplex means:

Complicate or confuse (a matter)

Source: Oxford Dictionaries

well I have learned the word convoluted recently.Before that, I thought the word intricate was the strongest in this sense. But when we look at the definitions it is hard to discern how to use them correctly because they mostly mean "very/ extremely complicated/complex/detailed".

As far I know a product made by an artist or scientist can be intricate or elaborate and also complex/complicated. For example a mural, fresco or automatic machine like a robot.

On the other hand, it seems like the word convoluted is more associated with written documents like legal terms and conditions or arguments which involves in many aspects of many subjects.

I'm not sure the word perplexing is used in a sense like baffling mostly but a novel's plot can be perplexing in a good/positive sense or when we use the perplexing we happen to suggest that we don't understand its context?

So can a software program, a machine, a film's/novel's plot, an art paint be convoluted?


before we can attempt an answer, we need to look at the meanings of these adjectives:

  1. convoluted
    stems from volute, an architectural detail on columns etc.: a decorative "spiral" or "roll".

    It has since developed an figurative meaning of "twisted" or "wound". If you have a plot or document, it's not straight forward and to the point, but - figuratively - goes round in circles. It often means confusing, but not necessarily so.

  2. intricate
    means tangled - often many (small) parts that are intertwined to form one entity. It seems similar to convoluted, but note that with convoluted the "in circles" aspect is dominant, while intricate simply focuses on the connection.

  3. elaborate
    contains labour - focusing on the work or effort involved to produce something. It often has an undertone of long, reflecting the time that goes with the effort.

  4. perplexed
    has undergone the biggest shift in meaning over time, keeping basically only one of his original meanings: bewildering, surprising. It's sort of "the odd one out" in your list.

So back to the original question about uses of convoluted:

A text/story or a piece of software can be convoluted, a painting or a machine not. Unless it is literally rolled up somehow1.



Convoluted = unnecessarily complicated. Convoluted is never a positive attribute. A convoluted movie plot is too complicated.

Intricate and Elaborate are very similar in that they describe complexity that could be either positive, neutral or negative.

Intricate = Complex and also often implies frailty. For example a mechanical watch has intricate machinery.

Elaborate = Complex or complicated but without the negative connotation. The term 'Overly elaborate' is very close in meaning to Convoluted. 'Elaborate' by itself means that something is complex but it is so by necessity.

Perplexing = Something is unexpected / not immediately explainable or understood. This word is not really in the same realm of meaning as the other three. Something that is simple can be perplexing, as can something that is complicated.

As far as the specific question of whether a software program, a machine, a film's/novel's plot, an art painting can be convoluted:

A software program can be convoluted - either its user interface can be convoluted (for example cluttered or hard to use), or the program code can be convoluted (was written in an unnecessarily complicated way).

A machine can be convoluted - for example if it is more difficult to use than it would need to be.

A film's plot can be convoluted - if it is unnecessarily hard to follow, or has plot twists that do not make sense etc.

An art painting cannot be inherently convoluted but it would be valid to say that one considers a painting to have been painted in a convoluted manner, for example if a more complicated technique of painting than needed was used to achieve the end result.

  • Welcome to ELL! This question does a good job of explaining the difference between the words but it could be improved by addressing the specific question asked at the bottom of the question - "So a software program, a machine, a film's/novel's plot, an art paint can be convoluted"?
    – Catija
    Aug 26 '15 at 14:22
  • 1
    "Convoluted is never a positive attribute"??? I think most people are quite happy to be mammals with convoluted brains (as opposed to reptiles, birds, etc., which have smooth brains). Aug 26 '15 at 16:56
  • @FumbleFingers, it might be that having a 'convoluted brain' is a neutral or positive attribution in some cultures but in the US and I believe many other western English speaking cultures, it would be akin to saying that someone has a tendency to overthink or create too complex solutions to problems.
    – user469104
    Aug 26 '15 at 17:36

To me, it's a difference of connotation.

Convoluted has a negative connotation. It carries with it an accusation that something has been made more complicated than it has to be with an intent at deception.

Intricate has a cautious connotation. It implies that the system is delicate or has a lot of internal relationships that are not immediately obvious.

Elaborate has a showmanship connotation, that can be positive or negative. An elaborate scheme has a lot of detail to make it more believable. An elaborate play or concert has a lot of added production to make for a more pleasant experience.

Perplexing implies that the complication stimulates more thought. When you look at something that is perplexing, you often wonder how it works or what it means. This can be positive if it is inspirational, or negative if it is confusing.

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