I was pretty confused when I first saw phrases like "legible impact" and "legible goals". I consider myself fairly well-read, and I had never encountered this usage outside of EA. I asked some other well-read non-EA folks, and they had the same reaction. In contrast, searching "legible" on the Forum produces 814 results, most of which appear to use this less common meaning.

I consulted several dictionaries, and here's what I found:


  1. capable of being read or deciphered: "legible handwriting"
  2. capable of being discovered or understood: "murder sweltered in his heart and was legible upon his face"


  1. capable of being read or deciphered, especially with ease, as writing or printing; easily readable.
  2. capable of being discerned or distinguished: "Anger was legible in his looks and behavior."

Googling "legible definition"

  1. (of handwriting or print) clear enough to read:"the original typescript is scarcely legible"

All three dictionaries have the same first definition, which is the primary usage in my experience. Definition 2 is sort of the way EA uses the word, but it is notable that both example phrases refer to things that can be read: "you could read murder on his face" / "you could read anger in his looks and behavior". The Google dictionary doesn't even have a second definition.

The Wikipedia article on legibility states that the word can refer to behavior or architecture in addition to written language, but makes no mention of this additional usage.

The book Seeing Like a State is notable for its unique definition of legibility, but this also isn't really how EA uses the word.

The Google search results for "legible impact" and"legible goals" (in incognito mode) appear to mostly fall into three categories:

  1. EA-related
  2. The author explicitly defines the term (example
  3. Other meanings (e.g., "legible impact font", "legitimate goal" misspelled)

That said, I did find a few instances (1, 2) of this usage in a casual non-EA context.

From what I can tell, usage of the word "legible" without any connection to literal or figurative reading appears to be quite uncommon outside of EA. (If anyone has a different impression, I would be interested to hear!) Given this, alternatives like "clear" and "understandable" (or even "verifiable") may be more effective in many contexts at conveying the desired message, especially when speaking with non-EA folks. In fact, you could even say that those alternatives are more legible (but maybe you shouldn't).




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It's a fair critique. I use "legible" in this way, and I don't really want to give it up, and I think it's not too bad jargon-wise because even non-EA people seem to understand it without too much prefixing with definition.

Your alternatives don't quite capture the idea right:

  • If I were to set a "clear" or "understandable" goal, I would expect people to be able to make sense of the goal statement but not necessarily see what KPIs went into it.
  • "Verifiable" is the opposite: I would expect people to expect that they could check whether or not we made the goal, but not simply read it and get it
  • The closest is "clear and verifiable" but it's three words -- and "legible" is still better, because it points at a more system-1-ish implementation of clarity and verifiability.

Thanks for the pushback! I agree that the specific meaning you're outlining isn't captured by any of my alternatives. That said, part of my issue is that I don't think EAs consistently use it that way: if you search "legible" on the Forum, I think a lot of the instances are essentially just synonyms for "clear". If people used "legible" when they meant "clear and verifiable" and used "clear" when they meant "clear", I'd be on board with that.

Even if the status quo continues, I don't think it's the end of the world or anything. I just sometimes feel like we're using jargon because it makes us feel cool rather than to facilitate communication, and that gives me some weird vibes. 

The book Seeing Like a State is notable for its unique definition of legibility, but this also isn't really how EA uses the word.

Could you explain how they differ?

Oh, is the EA usage based on that book? That's interesting.

My impression is that the book uses "legibility" to refer to the simplification and homogenization of society for ease of understanding, primarily for the purpose of control. The EA usage seems to focus on understanding in general, without a goal of control, and not necessarily via simplification or homogenization. For example, simplifying a complex phenomenon to the point where important nuances are lost would not be called legible by EA, because you're not understanding the actual phenomenon anymore.

The EA usage and Seeing Like a State usage are certainly related, just as they're both related to the original definition of "capable of being read". But they seem pretty different to me.

Disclaimer: I've only read sections of the book, not the whole book. So it's certainly possible that the author includes additional discussion which I didn't read.

Yeah, legibility = ease of understanding; propensity for someone unfamiliar with something to look at it and comprehend.

Seeing Like A State is about how governments want to simplify and homogenize things to make them more legible, which in turn facilitates state control of the actions of their citizens.

The EA usage seems to focus on understanding in general, without a goal of control, and not necessarily via simplification or homogenization.

Right, the focus here is legibility. Control and homogenization can be related, but are different.

This usage might have been popularized among EA-adjacent people by the Slate Star Codex book review, and trickled to the EA Forum from there.

Interesting, thanks for the explanation! That makes sense.

I do think my main claim still holds: that this usage is pretty unusual and can contribute to confusion, especially with non-EA folks. I'm not saying we should never use it, but I think we should examine when jargon facilitates communication by pointing to something that is not captured by any simpler term, vs when jargon impedes communication by reducing comprehension. At least for me, this usage of "legible" on the Forum initially fell into the latter category. And even now, I'm not sure it falls into the former category (for me personally).

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