Consensus taking

It's okay to repeat yourself

If you’re a journalist, you’re often trying to save words, so you should try to eliminate redundancies in phrases like “The house which was located at the intersection of Fifth and Main streets” or “She was on the board of directors, and served as chairwoman of the board.”

So it comes as a shock to discover that there now seems to be a general consensus of opinion that it’s all but standard English to say “consensus of opinion.” And it’s almost okay to say “general consensus of opinion.”

“Consensus” means “agreement of opinion or belief,” so why repeat “of opinion”? It would be something that the Department of Redundancy Department would have as a motto.

Using “consensus” all by itself is a “must” drilled into many journalists’ heads, by crusty city editors of the 1920s through content editors today. The irascible John J. Kilpatrick was not in favor of it. The Baltimore Sun’s persnickety language mave, John McIntyre, loathes it. Usage expert Bryan A. Garner calls it “prolix.” The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage has railed against it for generations: “Not the redundant consensus of opinion and not general consensus.”

Yet advice about how to use “consensus” never appears in The Chicago Manual of Style, or in The Associated Press Stylebook except as a spelling entry. (More on that later.) Even Theodore M. Bernstein, who was the style maven at The New York Times for years, is wishy-washy about it in The Careful Writer:

The idea of opinion is built into it; therefore “consensus of opinion” is a pleonasm, and although the phrase is in general use, the careful writer will reject it as he would reject any other wasteful redundancy.

Have we been wrong all these years, rejecting “(general) consensus of opinion” as verbose, though our fellow English-speakers continued to use it with abandon?

The first definition in the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary offers a clue: “general agreement,” with a reference to John Hersey: “the consensus of their opinion, based on reports … from the border.” A usage note says:

The phrase consensus of opinion, which is not actually redundant … has been so often claimed to be a redundancy that many writers avoid it. You are safe in using consensus alone when it is clear you mean consensus of opinion, and most writers in fact do so.

(Interestingly, the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary does not have such notes. They must have been, um, abridged from it.)

Even Garner, in the same Modern American Usage entry in which he condemns them, notes that “general consensus” and “consensus of opinion” are at Stage 4 of the five-stage Language-Change Index, just a hairsbreadth from “standard English.” He draws the line, though, at redundant redundancy, putting “general consensus of opinion” at Stage 3, a step farther from “normal.”

The best advice is to save the words, but, if you must use “consensus of opinion” or “general consensus,” be prepared to defend it against legions who believe to the very fiber of their beings that it is wrong.

As for spelling, even though a “consensus” is a counting of opinions in a manner of speaking, it has nothing to do with the “census.” The 1965 edition of H.W. Fowler’sModern English Usage says, “The misspelling concensus is curiously common.”

It still is.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.