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I get a weird twinge in my stomach whenever I have the urge to write "Needless to say." If it's needless to say, it would seem stupid to say it. Am I right? Am I wrong?

closed as primarily opinion-based by FumbleFingers, tchrist, Robusto, Mari-Lou A, Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Oct 23 '14 at 14:26

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  • 32
    Needless to say, you are correct. – Hot Licks Oct 22 '14 at 0:50
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    On sites with a minimum character requirement it can helpful if you're writing a short sentence. – Robin Hood Oct 22 '14 at 1:16
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    (In fact, when someone says "needless to say", you can usually figure that what they're going to say is not a conclusion that any sane person would arrive at.) – Hot Licks Oct 22 '14 at 2:02
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    The answers already explained the meaning of that particular phrase but it's important to understand that you are wrong in a very fundamental way. It is extremely common to use phrases or words that appear unnecessary, redundant or do not completely make sense if taken literally. See also en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cooperative_principle – Gala Oct 22 '14 at 5:02
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    @PatrickM That goes without saying. – Mr Lister Oct 22 '14 at 7:22
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Obviously, you are wrong.

First off, I don't need to point out that the majority of everything we say or write is superfluous, redundant, or pointless. Very, very little is really "worth saying". However, it is not a rule of English (or any language) that anything that can be removed must be removed. Pointlessness and redundancy are not wrong, they are merely pointless and redundant.

Second off, it goes without saying that "needless to say" is neither pointless nor redundant. It actually has a meaning and a purpose. It flags an otherwise unflagged statement as obvious, and consequently can be used for anything from emphasis to apophasis, from softening the impact to pumping up the condescension. Just compare "ρ = r(cos α + cos β + cos γ − 1)" to "Needless to say, ρ = r(cos α + cos β + cos γ − 1)".

Lastly, I don't even want to mention that "needless to say" is not the only phrase that is used for apophasis. There are many, many, countless other phrases, idioms, wordings and constructions that do the same thing. And not just in English but in absolutely every language. So any child can see that it is rather pointless to single out this particular phrase.

  • Not to mention that everybody uses the phrase. – pazzo Oct 22 '14 at 11:23
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    Just compare "ρ = r(cos α + cos β + cos γ − 1)" to "Needless to say, ρ = r(cos α + cos β + cos γ − 1)". Needless to say, they're both incomprehensible. – Hot Licks Oct 22 '14 at 15:01
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    +1 just for the artistic way you stuffed redundancy into every single sentence. – Chris Hayes Oct 22 '14 at 18:50
  • I would start this answer by "Needless to say, you are wrong" if I were you. – Pouya Oct 23 '14 at 12:48
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    @Pouya but I did just that. Talk about missing the point. – RegDwigнt Oct 23 '14 at 14:25
29

"Needless to say" is often used to bring attention to something which should be obvious to everyone, but (in the speaker's mind) isn't necessarily obvious.

For example, you might say:

We ran over budget again this quarter. Needless to say, if we can't stay under budget, we'll all lose our jobs.

The speaker in this case is using "needless to say" to call out the (obvious) relationship between staying under budget and keeping a job.

Needless to say, (see what I did there!?) "needless to say" has no place in concise or technical writing. However, it can be an effective tool for certain purposes.

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    I think you miss the point, that attention can be called to something by mentioning it without adding the phrase "needless to say". – Canis Lupus Oct 21 '14 at 23:31
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    There are many ways to call attention to something like that. You can use "obviously" as a drop in replacement, or something more complicated like "I hope everyone realizes that..." or "I just want to make sure that everyone understands that...". "Needless to say" is just one of many that's part of the lexicon. – Nick2253 Oct 21 '14 at 23:34
  • And, needless to say, the guy who warns of everyone losing their jobs is really only concerned about his own job. – Hot Licks Oct 22 '14 at 14:59
10

Adding the phrase needless to say can have at least a few purposes.

First, it is one of those emphatic phrases used to give special weight to a particular observation.

Your mother stopped by and cleaned the house again. Needless to say, I can't find anything now.

This emphasizes the seriousness of the conclusion, even though it may be obvious from past experience that it may often happen as a consequence of the premise.

Another use might be in the recitation of a series of events, even stating the obvious for completeness. For example, a pilot explaining what happened before a plane crash.

The engine fire light went on. We looked outside and saw flames. Needless to say, at that point, we had no power and the hydraulics didn't work. That is how we happened to crash.

As a form of phatic communication, it may be used out of politeness while stating the obvious, reducing any perception of condescension.

Needless to say, your age will be a concern the next time you renew your license.

You will have to look at the full context to see if it is genuinely unnecessary or has an implicit purpose, but there are reasons to use it.

  • "Your mother" must be related to my mother. – Marthaª Oct 22 '14 at 18:17
  • Your first example in my opinion is the best example in all answers. It very well shows how the sentence would be confusing if one removes "needless to say". +1 – Pouya Oct 23 '14 at 12:52
7

It declares that something is obvious, because whom it's obvious to will always be limited. To an insider the phrase is useless, but to a third party that is not aware of experiences or information that make something obvious, the phrase needless to say fills them in.

In @Canis Lupus's example:

Your mother stopped by and cleaned the house again. Needless to say, I can't find anything now.

As an outsider, we can conclude that the mother has a reputation for making things difficult to find. On the other hand if the example is re-imagined to exclude needless to say:

Your mother stopped by, and cleaned the house again; I can't find anything now.

As an outsider, this simply tells the us that things are now hard to find, it tells us nothing about previous cleanings.

-1

In addition to the good explanations offered in other answers, I'd like to add that needless to say is useful as a polite way to protect liability.

We normally omit obvious and well-known details from conversation for brevity. However, if I'm making a deal with someone and it's heavily contingent on such obvious information, I would do well to state the obvious anyway. This way, if the person I'm dealing with later decides to renege and attempts to justify their actions by feigning ignorance of a detail commonly assumed to be obvious, I can refer to the time I explicitly mentioned it.

At the same time, I want to be polite so as to avoid offending the person into rejecting the deal, so I express my awareness that they probably are intelligent enough to know the obvious information by qualifying my statement of the information with "Needless to say, ..."

-1

This is called an oxymoron which helps add style to speech. Style makes speech more interesting.

Reference.com states:

Although nonsensical at first glance (if unnecessary to say, why say it?), this phrase is generally used for emphasis.

Similar phrases: "it goes without saying".

Other oxymorons: "great depression", "jumbo shrimp", "random order".

To answer the question: yes, it's worth saying.

To answer the extended questions: no, it's not stupid to say; you are wrong :)

  • If this is a learning website which I suspect it to be, let's hear a reason for the down-votes. Perhaps we can save some nitpicking here: "it's not an oxymoron, it's an idiom!", to which I would reply: "oxymoron offers a better description." The OP is having trouble with this phrase because it appears to be contradictory (aka stupid). – perry Oct 22 '14 at 21:53
  • It did not downvote, but those examples are all wrong and I hope nobody will ever pick those up. A depression can be great in the sense of huge, a shrimp can be 'jumbo' in the sense of larger than other shrimps, and any random(ly chosen) order is still an order. – shuhalo Apr 11 '17 at 11:58
-1

Agreed...and this seems more like a comment than a question.

However, if I were to give an answer, I'd say it depends on your style and audience. If you think a bit of fluff would make things easier to swallow (and your readers have the extra time and patience), go for it. If the writing is more formal or technical, it's probably best to avoid since the audience isn't after cute quips but information.

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