Minimize vs. Reduce

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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:

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

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]
cut, cut back
keep down
keep to a minimum
make smaller
slim, slim down

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5 thoughts on “Minimize vs. Reduce”

  1. “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. “

  2. 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.

  3. I agree with Caitlin . . . you wouldn’t want to “minimize” deaths or accidents; you’d want to “eliminate” them. “Eliminate” seems to fit better in that context.

    So are the two interchangeable? What’s the distinction between the two? If there isn’t a distinction, why not just go with “eliminate”?

  4. Caitlin and Michael,
    You are both good people to want to eliminate accidents, illnesses, and deaths. I don’t, however, see how “eliminate” got into the synonym mix with “reduce” and “minimize.”
    Reduce=to make less.
    Minimize=to reduce to the smallest possible amount/extent/degree.
    Eliminate=remove, get rid of, put an end to.
    Few synonyms are exact because all words vary in connotation, even when they are close in denotation. “Reduce” and “minimize” are synonyms because both words denote a lessening. “Eliminate,” on the other hand, denotes something else entirely, not a lessening or reduction, but an elimination.
    I can imagine a journalist’s writing either, “the ordinance is intended to reduce traffic accidents” or “the ordinance is intended to minimize traffic accidents.” Either would convey an understandable meaning. I can’t imagine a journalist choosing to use the word “eliminate” in such a context because traffic accidents are a fact of life. The only way to eliminate them would be to outlaw driving.

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