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abridge

To abridge something means to shorten it or reduce its scope. That something usually, but not necessarily, consists of words, such as a document, film, play or such.

Changing the scope might mean, for example, removing some topics from a document because they aren’t considered important to a particular audience.

When using abridge to mean shorten rather than change its scope, the abridging of it changes neither its scope, nor it’s meaning. Instead, it removes redundant or superfluous words, paragraphs or possibly whole chapters, while leaving the substance of the message(s) intact.

Redundancy in writing is often criticized as a waste of readers’ time. But that isn’t necessarily the case. Sometimes, redundancy is used to say the same thing in different ways in the hope that readers who don’t understand the material as it was presented the first time will understand it after they read the second presentation, even if the meaning of the two (or more) presentations is identical.

Thus, if you remove redundancies to abridge, for example, a manual, you may, in effect, be saying to readers who didn’t understand you the first time, “screw you.”

Of course, it’s possible that those readers are just lazy bastards who can’t be bothered to spend the tiny bit of time necessary to understand your first explanation. If so and if they are, coincidentally, also evil incarnate, then it could be argued that “screw you” or even something much more belligerent might, indeed, be the appropriate response.

Then again, they might be perfectly wonderful people who, through no fault of their own, are a touch slow in their ability to grasp concepts, but perfectly worthy of your help. In that case, telling them “screw you” makes you the lazy bastard.

So, should you abridge something you wrote by removing redundancies? It depends on the circumstances and how much it bothers you to be though of as a lazy bastard, even though you were doing it to be more concise and, thereby, lighten your readers’ load.

Of course, if the redundancies are true redundancies, i.e., they repeat something in exactly the same way without in contributing in the least to greater understanding, then abridging your document  by removing the redundancies is almost always the right thing to do.

To change the subject slightly, there are some circumstances where I’m not entirely certain that abridge is the right word to use, nor am I sure that it is the wrong word to use. Consider the following, for example:

Let’s say that a group of civil engineers is charged with designing a new bridge to cross a ravine. The roads that the bridge is supposed to connect currently dead-end on either side of the ravine at its widest point.

If, after completing their design of the bridge and turning it over to the construction crew, the city says, “Stop. We’ve decided to move the roads so that the bridge will cross the ravine at the narrowest point,” would it be right to say that the resulting shorter bridge was abridged from the original design?

The bridge still serves the original purpose, and it still connects the same two roads, realigned though they may be, so I would argue that it is essentially the same bridge, but shorter, i.e., it is an abridged bridge.

And, if it is an abridged bridge, should I nonetheless have not brought it up at all because that strained play on words was, as the idiom goes, “a bridge too far?”

Looking back on this entry on the word abridge, I realize that readers could benefit from me abridging it. However, I’m too indolent to bother.

As the noted mathematician Blaise Pascal once wrote in a letter, “I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.” (He wrote it in French. That’s a translation that I read somewhere.) Pascal’s excuse was lack of time. Mine is laziness. Otherwise, it’s the same thing.

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