Minimize vs. Reduce

By Maeve Maddox

A reader feels there’s a difference between the words minimize and reduce:

Writers often use “minimize” to mean “reduce.” To minimize something is to reduce it to the smallest amount or degree. To “reduce” something is simply to make it smaller.

He offers two examples of perceived misuse of the word minimize and draws a distinction:

“This tactic could minimize in-study deaths and, if ineffective, clear the path for more rapid investigation of other interventions. (NY Times).”

“[Y]ou can actually boost your returns while at the same time minimize your risk by incorporating some simple option strategies. (NASDAQ site.)”

In each example, the recommendation reduces a negative consequence, but it doesn’t necessarily minimize it, because other negative consequences might exist. This may seem like a nuanced distinction, but it makes a degree of difference!

My two main dictionaries give these definitions:

OED
minimize verb: To reduce (especially, something unwanted or unpleasant) to the smallest possible amount, extent, or degree.
reduce verb: to make smaller, diminish.

Merriam-Webster
minimize verb: to reduce to the smallest possible number, degree, or extent.
reduce verb: to diminish in size, amount, extent, or number; make smaller.

In certain contexts, such as losing weight, lowering a price, or bringing a liquid to a smaller volume, reduce is the only choice.

In other contexts, however, minimize and reduce are synonymous. The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus lists reduce among synonyms for minimize and minimize among those for reduce.

The use of both words is tracked from 1800 on the Ngram Viewer, but minimize is rare until the beginning of the twentieth century. Reduce remains the more common word on the Viewer and in a Google search.

Here are some other words and phrases that express degrees of diminishment:

bring down
contract [kon-TRACT]
curtail
cut, cut back
decrease
diminish
keep down
keep to a minimum
lower
make smaller
narrow
prune
shrink
shorten
slim, slim down
trim

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3 Responses to “Minimize vs. Reduce”

  • David Knuttunen

    “Smallest possible” is a potentially ambiguous term. My sense is that most people interpret “possible” as “practical” or “practicable” (not an unreasonable interpretation, in dealing with real-world problems), and use “minimize” with that interpretation – reduce to the smallest practicable level, considering other factors or constraints. Mathematical optimization theory actually makes this explicit with the concept of “minimize subject to constraints”. This interpretation makes some of your counter examples at least possibly correct, and certainly gives the lie to your statement that “[i]n certain contexts, such as losing weight, lowering a price, or bringing a liquid to a smaller volume, reduce is the only choice. “

  • Caitlin

    I agree with the reader. ‘To reduce (especially, something unwanted or unpleasant) to the smallest possible amount, extent, or degree’, as M-W put it, is not the same as ‘to reduce’ (’make smaller, diminish’). There are myriad things that might benefit from reduction that are in no way preferred to be ‘reduced to the smallest possible amount’. Off the top of my head, these things include essays, wardrobes, font size, and document size.

    But no one would want to merely reduce risks (of accidents, illness, errors etc) – we would want to eliminate them. The closest practicable aspiration would be to minimize them.

    Synonyms offered in thesauruses are not necessarily strict synonyms but approximations of each other. Some are poor approximations.

  • Maeve

    David Knuttunen,
    I invariably get into trouble when I use words like “only” and “always.”

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