Posted by: Jack Henry | May 11, 2021

Editor’s Corner: An Abundance of Caution

Lately, I’ve been hearing the phrase “an abundance of caution” used to describe any amount of caution—even the bare minimum that a reasonable person would apply.

I always thought “abundance” implied an excessive amount. For example:

  • Correct: There’s a 20 percent chance of drizzle this weekend. I’m filling sandbags out of an abundance of caution.
  • Incorrect: We’re in the middle of a thunderstorm. I’m going to stop flying this kite out of an abundance of caution.

When companies use the phrase, it feels condescending—as if showing any regard for my well-being is a massive inconvenience. I would much prefer to read a phrase such as, “For your safety…” or, “Because we care about our customers…”

Am I just showing an abundance of crankiness? Or are there more appropriate phrases we should use?


Mr. Abbondanza

Dear Mr. Abbondanza

When I first read your email, I thought “Oh boy, I hope I can find something on this.” I was shocked when a found an abundance of blogs and newspaper articles on the topic. The ones I read were from very different sources, but the writers agreed on several points: the phrase is overused, sneaky, and has surged in the past year because of politics and COVID.

The two articles I’ll include pieces of are from the following sites:

From Bridget Read (The Cut), we have this description of why the phrase seems duplicitous:

“It has an air of rhetorical largesse; it implies politeness and restraint instead of flailing panic. It’s a verbal lasso around galloping unpredictability. Though the scale of its terms are oxymoronic—abundance signaling plenty, caution calling for restraint—that only serves to make it sound more poetic.

So as easily as “abundance of caution” slips off the tongue, it performs a sort of doublespeak. It evokes tranquility….

The blog, The Oikofuge, gives us the legal Latin term and defines it in the following way:

ex abundante cautela, “by way of extreme caution”, which was used when a person took extreme measures to avoid an unlikely adverse outcome

The writer further describes why it’s sneaky and how it can disguise the user’s intentions:

“Caution”, on its own, can be parsed as a negative attribute; but an “abundance” of anything has got to be a good thing, doesn’t it? The phrase also allows the user some considerable wiggle room if challenged. An abundance of caution can imply, “Well, I have no good supporting evidence for the course of action I took, but I did it with the best of intentions.”

You asked about alternate phrasing, but I think you should just avoid this phrase and speak frankly about whether caution is required, without qualifying how much caution must be used.

Kara Church

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Technical Editor, Advisory

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