Labor vs. Belabor

By Maeve Maddox

A reader asks,

Can you tell me which is preferred, “labor the point” or “belabor the point”. I’ve heard them used interchangeably.

The Google Ngram Viewer indicates that “labor the point,” (“to continue to repeat or explain something that has already been said and understood”) has been around for about 100 years longer than “belabor the point.” A Web search suggests that the two versions are now used interchangeably:

The vice president was apologizing for being long-winded and belaboring points, even as he continued to belabor long-winded points.

Not to belabor the point, but writing for publication is hard.

The speaker labored the point so long that we lost interest.

I will not labor the point that the power company doesn’t have many fans in Kenya.

The verb belabor has other applications. Literally, “to belabor” is “to thrash or buffet with all one’s might,” as in this description from Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

Legree was provoked beyond measure by Tom’s evident happiness; and riding up to him, belabored him over his head and shoulders.

Figuratively, “to belabor” is “to assail with words.” In this quotation from The Red Badge of Courage, the officers are urging their men to move faster:

Belabored by their officers, they began to move forward.

When applied to prose, belabored applies to a type of writing style characterized by long sentences and inappropriately erudite or archaic vocabulary:

[“The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James] may have created and sustained tension and horror when it was written, but now it is mostly belabored, overextended prose.

While popular criticism struggles to find its bearings, academia keeps on producing mountains of belabored prose for the sake of sustaining the small but diverse group of important thinkers still doing important work. 

[A]n unreasonable fascination with how spare one can make a sentence can have an equally destructive effect on the reader’s experience and draw just as much attention to the author’s “skill” in restraint as belabored prose draws to his cleverness or intelligence. Both extremes are destructive to the overall health of a story.

The Bailee translation captures the lyrical flavor of Hegel’s highly belabored prose. 

Ian M. Banks and China Mieville write rings around Herbert’s belabored prose.

Sometimes the writer’s use of belabor leaves the reader wondering about its intended meaning in the context:

No need to belabor the awfulness of this film, a romantic comedy devoid of romance.  

I don’t mean to belabor the discussion of Royals GM Dayton Moore.

He had been belaboring Rockefeller for many years. 

In 2007, the year that NCLB was evidencing belabored breathing, Coleman…started a new, national-standards-writing company (which turned nonprofit in 2011), Student Achievement Partners.”

This event did not belabor the federal intrusion on education but did introduce realities of FedLedEd rearing its head.

No primary votes are lost by belaboring the opposition.

Note: A person who is having difficulty breathing is said to exhibit “labored breathing.”

Here are some alternative words and expressions for belabor that may be clearer in some contexts:

dwell on
overdo
overdramatize
make too much of

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