All the references I'm finding says that 'verbiage' is used when trying to insult a work or person for being too wordy.

My experience with the word (by my own usage and the usage of others around me) have always meant that verbiage was a generic term for the words used, i.e. "I got that information from the email's verbiage."

Have I been using 'verbiage' incorrectly all my life?

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    Yes, it is, and you have. Maybe you should have checked a dictionary definition earlier! :) – FumbleFingers Jul 26 '11 at 22:08
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    Apparently every person I've met has also been using the word wrong. Which is why I asked the question. – OghmaOsiris Jul 26 '11 at 22:19
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    I believe you are a non-native English speaker. Perhaps in your own language you have a common word without negative connotations for the same thing. I'm not saying there are no such words in English, but we would normally just say "from the email", "from a book", etc. We don't normally refer to the text as such in most contexts. If we do, it tends to be about the way something is written, not the information content of the writing. – FumbleFingers Jul 26 '11 at 22:26
  • That's pretty presumptuous... I've spoken English my whole life. I don't speak any other language. – OghmaOsiris Jul 26 '11 at 22:28
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    Sorry - I meant no offense. But I must say "the email's verbiage" sounds a very odd thing to say if you're not intending to call attention to its verbosity. Perhaps this is a regional/dialectal thing (I'm British). – FumbleFingers Jul 26 '11 at 22:35

OALD defines verbiage as

[uncountable] (formal, disapproving)
the use of too many words, or of more difficult words than are needed, to express an idea

Wiktionary's verbiage entry notes an alternative definition

(2) (US) The manner in which something is expressed in words

but points out that another way of saying this, like "diction" or "phrasing", may be better if you want to avoid the pejorative connotation of the main definition.

It seems that plenty of people have the same question, wondering if verbiage refers just to words or phrasing:

Nevertheless, we often hear and read such expressions as “too much verbiage,” “excess verbiage,” and “excessive verbiage.” Perhaps the writers of these expressions have the second definition in mind.

As a speaker of American English, I'd agree with Wiktionary that verbiage alone still carries the connotation of lots of words, but to me it doesn't say strongly how you feel about those bunches of words. That would explain why I've never been surprised to see excessive verbiage — the addition of "excessive" makes it more clear that you don't want those extra words.

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    A related possibility: verbiage is picking up the negative connotations from the related word verbosity. – JSBձոգչ Jul 27 '11 at 1:15
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    I think the OALD got it right: not insulting, but disapproving. – Malvolio Sep 15 '14 at 19:03
  • @Malvolio The word that comes to mind for the bottom end of the scale is "contrived" or "put-on". – Phil Sweet Jun 27 '16 at 15:44

To follow up on Patrick87's answer, here are the definitions of verbiage in Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003):

1 : a profusion of words usu. of little or obscure content {such a tangled maze of evasive verbiage as a typical party platform —Marcia Davenport} 2 : manner of expressing oneself in words : DICTION {sportswriters guarded their verbiage so jealously —R. A. Sokolov}

Starting with the Seventh Collegiate (1963) and its unabridged source, Merriam-Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1961), Merriam-Webster has taken a descriptivist-friendly approach to defining the words it covers, meaning that the presence of definition 2 of verbiage above reflects a significant level of U.S. English usage in everyday speech and writing. But for how long have dictionaries in the Collegiate series reported this second meaning?

The answer: Since the Seventh Collegiate. The Sixth Collegiate (originally published in 1949, though I have a copy bearing the publication year 1960), which is based on the more prescriptivist-friendly New International Dictionary, Second Edition (1934) offers only this definition:

verbiage n. [F. See VERB.] Use of many words without necessity, or with little sense; verbosity; wordiness.

Then comes the Seventh Collegiate (1963):

verbiage n [F, fr. MF verbier to chatter, fr. verbe speech, fr. L verbum word] 1 : superfluity of words in proportion to sense or content: WORDINESS 2 : DICTION, WORDING {concise military verbiage}

Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1989) goes to some pains to validate the second definition of verbiage. After noting that the "wordiness" definition was the word's original meaning in English, WDEU offers the following analysis:

Verbiage has also been used since the early 19th century as a synonym for wording or diction:

The language of the dialogue is as familiar as the verbiage of the parlour fireside —The New British Theatre, 1814 (OED)

In musical verbiage a phrase is a portion of a melody that is performed without a pause —Albert E. Weir, 1940

... the kid-glove verbiage of diplomacy —Frank Abbott Magruder, National Government and International Relations, 1950

Such usage is treated as standard in the OED and in many current dictionaries, including our own, but some people continue to regard it as an error, insisting that verbiage should always imply excess. Those same people are also likely to find fault with such phrase as excess verbiage and excessive verbiage, in which they detect redundancy. The evidence shows, however, that the meaning of verbiage is often underscored in standard writing by an appropriate adjective: [examples omitted]

Half a century after the arrival of the Seventh Collegiate, verbiage in the sense of diction shows no signs of going away—at least not in the United States. For example, from Rachel Sherman, Class Acts: Service and Inequality in Luxury Hotels (2007):

Using engineered recognition, [Luxury Garden] workers consistently noted and respected guest preferences and frequently anticipated their needs. They were cordial but not overly friendly or familiar, as a rule, though some had developed relationships with frequent guests. Workers generally used what managers called “proper verbiage” rather than informal talk, which preserved distance.

Readers and hearers should probably expect to see verbiage used in its "diction" sense at times. But writers and speakers who don't want to be misunderstood by audiences that are more (or perhaps exclusively) familiar with the more common "wordiness" sense of the word might do well to adopt a less ambiguous term such as diction or wording if their intentions that way tend.

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Merriam Webster Online gives two definitions: the first has the negative connotation, and the second one doesn't. I've heard it used both ways; in any event, the intention is probably clear from the context, in most cases.

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  • I think you would struggle to find many written instances from the last 50 years where "verbiage" is not used in a derogatory sense. 100 years ago and more it was 'neutral', but gradually it's become conflated with the always derogatory "verbosity". – FumbleFingers Jul 26 '11 at 22:31
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    I use it almost daily at work. It's become common in a professional setting for me. – OghmaOsiris Jul 26 '11 at 23:25
  • In a crossword puzzle, Clue "Word Slaughter" answer: "Verbiage". – davey Jul 27 '11 at 8:10

In my workplace it most often is used in place of the word "diction"; which I feel is more appropriate. A statement like "we should check the letter's verbiage" or "I'm be concerned the wrong verbiage would be used" is common. In my opinion, this stems from the common use of "buzzspeak" in much the same way the "leverage" or "solution" is used incorrectly in many workplaces.

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OED (Oxford English Dictionary) clearly explains that any positive or neutral usage of "verbiage" is American (U.S. English, as per OED 2nd definition); whereas CANOX (Canadian Oxford Dictionary) only lists the first definition (negative). If you read a lot of business correspondence coming out of the American workplace, it is peppered with on-the-spot, made-up, and often grammatically incorrect verbiage--yes, I am applying that latter word in its true, negative sense. Please do not try to impose the "walmartization" of the English language, which has arisen from sloppy/elastic American business writing practices, on the rest of the world. There are already too many examples of poor/lazy English in the English email world, allowing any noun to become a verb--and vice versa--for the sake of message brevity or to make some kind of hip-looking impact. If you care about linguistic quality and standards, then you should be more vigilant so as not to reproduce someone else's language errors and verbiage.

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    Does your unwalmartizated English have no penchant for paragraphs? – Helmar Sep 28 '16 at 15:08
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