I am constantly reading comments and documents from people who use the verb redact to refer to the act of deleting or otherwise censoring content. This never seemed correct to me, but until today it never actually occurred to me to look up the dictionary definition. I just did, and this is what it says:

–verb (used with object)
1.   to put into suitable literary form; revise; edit.
2.   to draw up or frame (a statement, proclamation, etc.).

Nowhere does this seem to indicate anything about deletion. I suppose that, in a very limited set of circumstances, redaction in the context of "editing for publication" might indeed involve the deletion of certain content, but that aspect seems incidental rather than fundamental.

That said, I accept that plenty of "common English" hasn't made it to the dictionaries or style guides yet, so I'm wondering if maybe I missed a memo, because the "delete" definition seems to come up almost everywhere I look. For example:

  1. ...before sharing board minutes (or shareholder or committee minutes) with auditors or other third parties, carefully review the minutes and redact (delete) sections containing privileged information to avoid waiving the attorney-client privilege. [AllBusiness]

  2. The term redaction may not be a household term, but is often used in the legal community. It's the practice of removing confidential or sensitive data before giving the document to others. [ProductivityPortfolio]

  3. On synonyms.net, it is actually defined as "edit" but has several "delete" synonyms listed:

    cast, edit out, edit, blue-pencil, cut, redact, put, frame, couch, delete

  4. Adobe Acrobat even has a feature named Search and Redact that deletes results.

So... what exactly is going on here? Is this usage:

  • Inane corp-speak parroted by people who have no idea what it means?
  • Jargon that escaped from the legal profession and made it into common use?
  • The result of most types of redaction being deletion, leading to natural confusion due to frequent use?
  • A more mundane form of confusion - possibly with the similar-sounding retract?
  • Just another case of the dictionary being at odds with the informal/spoken language?

Basically, what I'm trying to understand is: Is this really an acceptable usage of the word, and if so, then what is its real origin and/or justification?

Note: I'm having a little trouble making sense of the tagging conventions here, so please feel free to retag this if necessary.

  • 1
    The context where I've most often met this word is also not in the dictionary: adapting an old recipe to modern use is called 'redacting' or 'redaction'.
    – Marthaª
    Oct 25, 2010 at 23:59
  • The only context I've heard this word used is government censorship of official documents before publication.
    – TRiG
    Dec 6, 2010 at 19:54
  • In current U.S. usage, I think, "redacted" refers not to language that has been erased or cut out, but to language that has been blacked out on a copy of the original document. Here is a typical example from Rebuilding Iraq: U.S. Mismanagement in the Middle East (2005): "These audits were so heavily redacted, however, as to be nearly meaningless. Every reference to every overcharge in every audit submitted to the IAMB was blacked out. In total, references to overcharges and other questioned costs were redacted 463 times by Halliburton and U.S. officials."
    – Sven Yargs
    Feb 6, 2013 at 1:06

4 Answers 4


The Merriam-Webster Online dictionary gives a third sense of redact:

3: to obscure or remove (text) from a document prior to publication or release

This is now the most common meaning of the word, as a quick perusal of the incidences in COCA for variants of redact will confirm. The dictionaries at dictionary.com appear to be behind the times by not including this sense of the word.

  • 2
    Interesting, I never looked at the source. I'm almost positive that dictionary.com used to display definitions from Merriam-Webster; I guess they were redacted. :P I obviously need to stop using dictionary.com; Oxford, for example, doesn't even bother listing the first two definitions!
    – Aaronaught
    Oct 25, 2010 at 23:50
  • @nohat, What about British English?
    – Pacerier
    Sep 26, 2016 at 16:45
  • @Pacerier: as Aaronaught noted, the very British Oxford Dictionaries only include the edit/black out senses of the word: en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/redact
    – nohat
    Sep 26, 2016 at 16:56

The meaning "edit" doesn't necessarily conflict with the sense of "deleting or censoring". Government documents which are "redacted" were edited for presentation, in that some content was removed before they were presented.

When you have a document which you are forced to give to someone else (such as when a government responds to a freedom-of-information request) any edits to the document defeat the purpose of the request, and thus the only edit that can be made is to remove (censor) content. Hence it's not wrong to say that the document was "redacted" when what is meant was the document was "censored".

  • 2
    I certainly understand and agree that the definitions aren't conflicting, but it's a bit like claiming that the definition of "get dressed" is to "put on a tie." In your case, you're referring to a document being redacted, and the type of redaction would likely be the deletion of several items. However, most of the examples I've given refer to the "redaction" of a specific sentence or even a single word, and that usage seems incorrect (the word hasn't actually been edited, it's been removed). Does that help at all to clarify?
    – Aaronaught
    Oct 25, 2010 at 20:52
  • 1
    @Aaronaught: I'd say that a word can be edited by being deleted. But words and paragraphs don't stand alone, they are in the context of a document, and even if someone says that a paragraph was (edited|deleted|redacted) the context is "(edited in|deleted from|redacted in) a document". In any case, my point is that the narrow meaning (to delete) stems from a specific use-case for the broader meaning. So I can imagine a scenario where "to get dressed" takes on a specific meaning that is narrower than generic "putting on clothes". It could be jargon for people with a uniform, for example. Oct 26, 2010 at 14:54
  • I feel like 'redacting' implies or requires that the deletions remain latent. I wouldn't call a document "redacted" if you had no way to tell that deletions were made, and probably even more specifically, where those edits occurred. Jan 1, 2017 at 20:07

The OED gives us the history of the word, which has been around since the 15th century, but used rather differently then.

The relevant definition is 4a:

To put (writing, text, etc.) in an appropriate form for publication; to edit.

  • 1829 Monthly Rev. Oct. 278 The account of his second expedition was carefully redacted.
  • 1851 T. Carlyle Life J. Sterling ii. xii.305 Sterling..redacts it into a Times leader
  • 1884 Times 1 Nov. 9 Their observations are recorded, tabulated, digested, and redacted in every possible way.
  • 1957 N.Y. Suppl. (Electronic ed.) 2nd Ser. 168 423 Means should have been adopted to redact De Gennaro's confession and admissions — before their introduction into evidence.
  • 1994 Wanderer 11 Aug. 3/3 But most disturbing is a confidential memo Ickes sent to Hillary Clinton on the RTC, which has been redacted from 25 pages to just one paragraph.

So the general meaning of editing has been around since the early 19th century!

I have also recently encountered it in Adobe Acrobat when I wanted to obscure certain details in a pdf document. 'React' is the term used there, and the result is blacked out portions of the document.


That's certainly the way I see it widely used. Perhaps it comes more from this version of the definition:

  1. to compose or draft (an edict, proclamation, etc)
  2. to put (a literary work, etc) into appropriate form for publication; edit

When a confidential government document is redacted for public use, it is being "put into appropriate form for publication", per the second definition. Practically speaking, though, this normally entails removing still-confidential or secret information.

I imagine this is why its come to be synonymous with "delete" or "remove the good parts".

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