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TWTS: Your verbiage might be your best quality, unless its your worst

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If you ask someone to critique your writing, and their review includes “verbiage,” is that a good thing or a bad thing? Depends on who you ask.

They could be saying that your writing contains too many words. That’s the meaning of “verbiage” listener Karla Taylor knows. However, Karla says, “I keep getting caught up short by the usages I see…where I would have used ‘wording.’”

Karla gives this example, "We need to come up with some verbiage for a conduct policy." Since it’s highly unlikely someone wants a conduct policy that has too many words, “wording” would make more sense here.

However, for listener Sherlyn Thornton, it makes sense to use “verbiage” in Karla’s example.

“Until I looked it up … I always thought ‘verbiage’ just meant ‘choice of words to use.’ That is how I have always heard it used and used it,” Sherlyn says.

We have good news for both of these listeners: They’re both right.

“Verbiage” comes into English from French, sometime in the early 1700s. There’s evidence that its earliest meaning in English was “an excess of words.” However, within less than a century, “verbiage” gains a more neutral context, in which it could refer to the form of words or how something is worded.

In style guides, you’ll find commentators who still object to this more neutral use of “verbiage,” even though it’s been around for more than 200 years. Most standard dictionaries will include both meanings without assigning either a usage label such as “non-standard” or “informal.”

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Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.