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Watch Your Verbiage

For a business writing class I will teach later today, I asked participants to let me know what they would like to be able do better in their writing. Among those responding, two participants wanted to “use better verbiage” and “use more powerful verbiage.”

Being an advocate of clear business writing, my first thought was to suggest that they use simpler language–to avoid words like verbiage. But then I decided to find out just what verbiage means.

In a review of six online dictionaries and one on my bookshelf (A-G below), these are the definitions of verbiage I found:

A. wordiness

B. 1. a profusion of words usually of little or obscure content. 2. a manner of expressing oneself in words.

C. 1. excess of words that add little or nothing to the meaning. 2. a style of language in which something is expressed.

D. 1. overabundance of words. 2. a style of language in which something is expressed.

E. excessively lengthy or technical writing.

F. language which is very complicated and which contains a lot of words.

G. more words than necessary; wordiness.

Wow! Now that I am sure of the meanings of verbiage, I am going to suggest that the writers in class eliminate verbiage–not use it more powerfully. I’ll suggest that they use simpler or more powerful language depending on their goal and their reader’s needs.


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

11 comments on “Watch Your Verbiage”

  • I feel the same. The term “verbiage” is more stylish and yes you are correct that it actually stands for excessive use of words. But also help us to use simpler language.

    Hope you will revert.

  • I have the definition of “verbiage” posted prominently in my cube, but that doesn’t stop people from using it ad nauseam. So, I posted another sign next to it which reads, “Pejorative Censoriousness at Work, Speak and Write Carefully!” Now I make fun of them with impunity.

    The secondary dictionary definition is another example of enough people using a word incorrectly, and so frequently, that dictionaries start including the wrong definition as a second or less preferred meaning. Just the same way as people often use “aggravated” to mean “irritated.”

  • Hi Lynn

    I have been frustrated by the way people misuse the word ‘revert’. I have always understood it to mean ‘return to previous state’ or similar, NOT ‘respond’ or ‘reply’. This seems to be backed up by the definitions I looked up – what is your view?


  • Mark, I concur with your understanding of the word. Not even by a long stretch can ‘revert’ mean ‘respond’ or ‘reply.’ The only explanation of this misuse is that some people have reverted to a troglodyte state.

  • Nadeem, thank you for responding to Mark.

    I have been away from my reference books, so I haven’t responded yet. I like to check a few resources before I reply. If I give bad advice, people will think I have reverted to a troglodyte state too!


  • Hi Lynn,

    I hope you didn’t mind my jumping into the conversation by ‘reverting’ to Mark! Actually, I never made the connection with the first post in this thread. Previously, I had no clue what that person was saying.

  • I have looked through a shelf full of reference books. Now I can conclusively say that “revert” is never used in American English for the meaning “reply” or “respond.”

    I cannot speak for its use in India.


  • Some people in the UK use ‘revert’ in this manner, especially when asking for someone to respond to an email. As far as I can tell from reference this is not correct in the UK either. However could this not be an example of language evolution?

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