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There was the following sentence in the article titled “Why Rick Perry may be out of luck” appearing in the New Yorker (August 19):

"Last Friday, the Texas Governor was indicted on two counts: abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public servant. What those charges mean, though, is hard to say. The indictment itself is just two pages and, to put it charitably, unelaborated." http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/rick-perry-may-luck

I’m unfamiliar with the phrase, “to put it charitably.”

CED defines “charitably” as;

Verb. in a kind way, not judging other people in a severe way: example. She described him, rather charitably, as quiet whereas I would have said he was boring.

But the above definition doesn’t look sit well to me with the sentence, “two-page indictment, to put it charitably is unelaborated,” because “unelaborated” indictment is felt to be rather a bitter criticism.

Google Ngram shows popularity of “to put it mildly” (0.0000183846% in 2007) in comparison with marginal currency of “to put it charitably (0.0000005512% in 2007).

What does “to put it charitably” here mean? Is it same with “to put it mildly" or "to say the least”? If it is, I wonder why the writer preferred to use a phrase not so popular.

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    Not exactly. Using 'to put it charitably' stresses that you are pulling your punches; using 'to put it mildly' really stresses that the situation is worse than you actually indicate. The pragmatic clauses overlap in meaning, but have different focuses. Aug 20, 2014 at 21:48
  • However Edwin, you're just talking shades of feeling. Eg, "supercar" "bedroom poster car" and "exotic car" have different shades of meaning. the fact is they are interchangeable. Quite simply, you could swap in either of the two other phrases, in the example given.
    – Fattie
    Aug 21, 2014 at 10:34

4 Answers 4

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To put something charitably means to express a negative feature in the most favorable way. However, it's usually used sarcastically, when describing something you think is very wrong. By specifically pointing out that you're being charitable, the reader understands that you're avoiding the obvious negatives.

In the example you gave, the writer is implying that the indictment should be more detailed. But rather than say this right out, he uses a mild way to say that it's incomplete.

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"To put something charitably" means to look at something is the most forgiving manner to the person in question.

For example if someone left a store without paying for something and it is not clear they meant to steal it (eg perhaps they were trying on sunglasses and left them on their head as they walked out), then you could charitably say "they forgot to pay". Less charitably you could say they stole it.

It is used when there is uncertainty or discrepancy. If I ask you "what is the capital of Japan?" and you say "Beijing", I could put it charitably "you mispoke, misheard, or forgot". The inverse, less charitably, would be "you know nothing about geography".

Think of charitably as "giving someone the benefit of doubt".

In the case of the article the charitable "unelaborated" is the nicest interpretation of the allegations. An uncharitable one would be "baseless" or "unfounded".

However, often when one is explicitly saying that they are putting something charitably they are implying that what they want to say is the less charitable interpretation. This can be used for avoiding the legal implications of actually saying the less charitable thing such as libel or slander.

See: Wikipedia: "Principle of Charity"

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    Do you really think the author of that New Yorker article was giving the court the benefit of the doubt? This is a rhetorical device that only seems to be doing so.
    – Barmar
    Aug 21, 2014 at 5:59
  • @Barmar Well, that is another level of meaning. It's like sarcasm, it doesn't change what the text means but does change what the speaker wants to convey.
    – Sled
    Aug 21, 2014 at 13:31
  • @Barmar I added a comment about implications of saying you are putting things charitably
    – Sled
    Aug 21, 2014 at 13:46
  • It's libel, not liable.
    – Barmar
    Aug 21, 2014 at 14:58
  • I would agree with Sled here. To "put it charitably" implies that you have tried to find a positive way, or the most positive way possible (i.e. it may still be negative) to put it. To "put it mildly" means to tone down the criticism. "he is dumb, to put it mildly" means "he is really stupid". You might say it similarly, but more kindly "his abilities lie outside of intellectual pursuits, to put it charitably". I respectfully disagree that they are exactly interchangeable, though in practice many may do so. This phrase is more common in UK than US.
    – Patrick
    Jan 13, 2020 at 18:52
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In actual answer to your questions,

Is it same [as] “to put it mildly" or "to say the least”?

Yes, it is absolutely identical.

I wonder why the writer preferred to use a phrase not so popular.

"to put it charitably" is as perfectly widely known as “to put it mildly" or "to say the least”

Note that it has a slightly more sarcastic, aggressive, witty feel.

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  • As a non-native English speaker, I don't know actual popularity of both 'to put it mildly' and 'to put it charitably.' So I'm simply refering to the number of incidences of both phrases indicated in GoogleNgram. Aug 21, 2014 at 11:15
  • @YoichiOishi , spoken language has relationship to written language. This is especially true in English. GoogleNgram is not of value in this.
    – Fattie
    Jan 12, 2020 at 15:48
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The usual set phrase is ", to put it mildly". It is used to stress the fact that the criticism expressed is not as strong as it should be, that it was an understatement.

From this basic, standard cliché, you can make any sort of personal variation. In this case 'charitably' is more strong, sarcastic than the original. It means you have pity of the author, and that the text is much worse than 'unelaborated'

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  • "To put it charitably" is also a common set phrase.
    – nnnnnn
    Jan 13, 2020 at 20:41

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