Brevity in Speech and Writing

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

According to President Franklin Roosevelt's son James, these were his father's "hints on speech-making.".

Brevity is shortness in duration and/or conciseness of expression in a speech or a written text. Contrast with verbosity.

Brevity is generally considered a stylistic virtue as long as it's not achieved at the expense of clarity.

Examples and Observations

  • "If you would be pungent, be brief; for it is with words as with sunbeams--the more they are condensed, the deeper they burn."
    (Robert Southey)
  • "Brevity is a great charm of eloquence."
  • "How brief? Well, as brief as possible but not so brief that the message doesn't get across. But messages vary so. 'Beat it!' is short enough but very long when you reckon in the attitude that comes with it. . . . Brevity, then, depends on the message. . .
    "Brevity, in most human communication, remains a variable governed by social relationships as much as by factual baggage. One is 'brief' in all kinds of ways, and Polonius's objection, 'This is too long,' always means 'Too long for this person, place, and time.'"
    (Richard Lanham, Analyzing Prose, 2nd ed. Continuum, 2003)
  • "[S]ince brevity is the soul of wit,
    And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
    I will be brief . . .."
    (Polonius in William Shakespeare's Hamlet, Act 2, scene 2)
  • "There are no hard and fast rules in writing for the ear, but after more than fifty years of working at it, I believe in some rough guidelines.
    "Two of them are: short is usually better than long and don't waste words. The bank robber Willie Sutton got it right when he was asked why he robbed banks. 'That's where the money is,' he replied. Have you ever heard three words that convey a message better than 'stick 'em up,' or 'I've had it!' or 'I'm outta here'? Have you ever heard anyone express himself better, faster, or more to the point than the judge who had the following exchange in his courtroom: 'As God is my judge,' the defendant said, 'I am not guilty.' To which the magistrate answered, 'He's not! I am! You are!'
    "Now that's good writing. No unnecessary adverbs or adjectives, just telling it like it is. Don't be afraid to write the way people talk."
    (Don Hewitt, Tell Me a Story: Fifty Years and 60 Minutes in Television, PublicAffairs, 2001)

Brevity in Presentations

  • "Edit ruthlessly. Brevity, always a virtue, is doubly so when you're trying to avoid watering down your impact. Matt Eventoff, principal of Princeton Public Speaking, in Princeton, N.J., says: 'This is stuff we’ve all known instinctively--anyone who’s sat in a corporate meeting over the past 20 years, with slide after slide after slide of information. It can be very powerful information, but it’s overwhelming--you don’t know what it’s saying. "Are we in good shape or in bad shape?" You can’t tell. When all the points of your presentation don’t back up your streamlined theme, you really risk losing people and also potentially turning them off.'" (Christopher Bonanos, "Quit While You're Ahead." Bloomberg Businessweek, Dec. 3-Dec. 9, 2012)

Brevity and Conciseness

  • "'Brevity' is often used indifferently with 'conciseness'; but when any difference is implied, then properly speaking, 'brevity' refers to the matter, 'conciseness' to the style. In fact, when brevity of style is spoken of, it may be considered synonymous with 'conciseness.' Strictly speaking, however, 'brevity' merely implies the use of few words, while 'conciseness' implies a great deal of matter concentrated in a small space." (Elizabeth Jane Whately, A Selection of English Synonyms, 1852)

Brevity and Clarity

  • "It must be recognized that it is very difficult for those giving attention to brevity also to give due care to clarity; for often we either make the language unclear for the sake of clarity or for clarity's sake we have to speak at length. It is necessary, then, to be on the lookout whether the brevity is proportional, neither leaving out anything necessary nor including more than is needed." (Nicolaus the Sophist, quoted by George A. Kennedy in Progymnasmata: Greek Textbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric. Society of Biblical Literature, 2003)

Safire's Contrarian View of Brevity

  • "Every book on writing you can find these days says essentially the same thing: keep it short. Take it a bite at a time. Dispense with the adjectival frills. Put the punch in the verb and not the adverb (he added weakly). Edit, edit, edit, and avoid repetition. Less is more, spare is fair. . . "Maybe we are going overboard. The burst of the business memo, the snap-and-spit of the television news 'bite,' the mincing sentences of post-Hemingway novelists--all have led to the canonization of brevity.. Introduce it, lay it out, sum it up. The dash is dead. It is not for nothing, as the Communists say, that the hottest word in communication is briefing." (William Safire, "Introduction: Watch My Style." Language Maven Strikes Again. Doubleday, 1990)

The Lighter Side of Brevity

  • "People whose vision is perfect in every other respect suffer from a curious astigmatism which prevents them from recognizing a stopping point when they come to it. We suggest to some ingenious inventor that he devise a combination of time clock and trip hammer by which a dull, blunt instrument shall be liberated at the end of five minutes so that it may fall with great force, killing the after dinner speaker and amusing the spectators." (Heywood Broun, "We Have With Us This Evening." Pieces of Hate and Other Enthusiasms. Charles H. Doran, 1922)
  • "[Calvin Coolidge's] most celebrated trait was his taciturnity. An oft-told story, which has never been verified, is that a woman sitting next to him at dinner gushed, 'Mr. President, my friend bet me that I wouldn't be able to get you to say three words tonight.' "'You lose,' the president supposedly responded."(Bill Bryson, One Summer: America, 1927. Doubleday, 2013)

From the Latin, "short"

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Brevity in Speech and Writing." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Brevity in Speech and Writing. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Brevity in Speech and Writing." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).

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