; Skip to Content

General Consensus: Meaning and Usage

English is a language full of idiomatic phrases, many of which have origins in ages past when the world was far different. To a 21st century ear, these phrases can often sound old-fashioned, unnecessarily wordy, and irrelevant. The phrase “general consensus” can be seen as one such old-fashioned idiom.

The phrase “general consensus” is often considered redundant because the word “consensus” means widespread agreement, so it already contains the element of a general opinion. However, an argument can be made that the phrase introduces a more nuanced meaning than the single word, “consensus” by noting it’s not absolute.

Redundancy is common and acceptable in spoken English, but when it comes to more formal written language, it is worth considering your choice of words and phrases more carefully.

However, before you dismiss any phrase as redundant, it’s worth considering the multitude of subtle connotations that can be conveyed by words with similar meanings and usage.

The Meaning of General Consensus

The English word “consensus” comes from the Latin word cōnsēnsus, which is made up of the prefix con (together) and the verb sentire (to feel). Together, these two elements create the meaning of the word “consensus,” which is agreement or accord (source).

You can see that the word “consensus” is related in structure and meaning to the word “consent” — to grant permission.

The word “consensus” can be used as either a noun or an adjective. Consider these examples:

Noun: After many hours of debate, the committee reached a consensus on the budget for the new year.

Adjective: Consensus politics refers to an overlap in the beliefs of opposing political parties.

In the phrase, “general consensus,” the word “consensus” is used as a noun. It is qualified or described by the adjective “general,” the meaning of which you are probably familiar with as widespread, common, universal, or popular.

Therefore, the meaning of the phrase “general consensus” is a widespread agreement or common accord. Consider these examples to understand how the phrase is used:

The general consensus in the office is that Monday morning meetings are a form of punishment.

Among doctors, there is a general consensus that the over-prescription of antibiotics is dangerous.

You can see that in both cases above, the phrase “general consensus” is used to indicate a widespread agreement in opinion within a group of people of variable size.

In the first sentence, “the office” indicates the employees of a particular company; in the second sentence, “doctors” could refer to all doctors countrywide or even worldwide.

The meanings of the word “general” are actually quite nuanced and can convey different tones or shades of meaning.

This is the foundation of the argument that the phrase “general consensus” is nuanced rather than repetitive. But, first, let’s consider the issue of redundancy in language.

The Error of Redundancy

In the English language, redundancy refers, broadly, to the unnecessary repetition of information (source). For example:

It’s recommended that you visit the dentist every six months, and, since it has been six months since my last visit, I have made an appointment for next week.

You can see that the above sentence is unnecessarily long because it repeats the information that one should go to the dentist every six months. It is possible to convey the same meaning in fewer words:

It has been six months since my last visit to the dentist, so I have made an appointment for next week.

This sentence implies that six monthly visits to the dentist are recommended without having to convey the information in as many words.

It is quite common and acceptable for people to repeat themselves in informal spoken English, but, in written English, repetition can lead to irritating wordiness and confusion of meaning.

Business writing, in particular, should be concise and simple. Flowery phrases can be cumbersome to read.

So, in most cases, if you can say something in one or two words rather than five — without losing any important meaning — you should try to do so (source).

Tautology

Tautology is a specific type of redundancy in the English language, which occurs when a sentence uses two words with identical or very similar meanings in close proximity to each other (source). There are many ways in which sentences can be tautologous.

For example:

1. Receiving so many messages on my birthday was an unexpected surprise.

By definition, a surprise is unexpected.

2. I thought to myself that Mom was in a bad mood this morning.

Unless you’re telepathic, it’s impossible to think to anyone other than yourself! 

3. Never share your account PIN number with anyone.

The acronym PIN is short for “personal identification number,” so the word “number” is already present in the sentence.

These sentences can all be written more concisely without losing their original meanings:

1. Receiving so many messages on my birthday was a surprise.

2. I thought that Mom was in a bad mood this morning.

3. Never share your account PIN with anyone.

Tautology is very common in English, especially in informal speech. Many popular phrases would actually sound pretty strange without it. Consider these examples:

Advance warningA warning is, by definition, in advance.
End resultA result, by definition, comes at the end.
Added bonusA bonus is, by definition, an addition.
False pretensePretense, by definition, is false.
Safe havenThe idea of safety is included in the meaning of the word “haven.”
Aid and abetThe words “aid” and “abet” both mean “help.”
Small in sizeThe word “small” already refers to size.
Shouted loudlyIt is impossible to shout quietly.
HIV virusHIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus.

In some cases, a tautology is used deliberately to emphasize a meaning (source). For example, the phrase “added bonus” in the examples above is tautological, but an advertiser might use it to emphasize the benefits you will get by choosing a particular product.

Many people argue that the phrase “consensus of opinion” is also tautological because the word “consensus” already refers to a shared opinion. For example:

Among doctors, there is a consensus of opinion that over-prescription of antibiotics is dangerous.

Among doctors, there is a consensus that the over-prescription of antibiotics is dangerous.

In broad terms, these two sentences have the same meaning. However, it could be argued that there is a very subtle difference between the two. 

The phrase “consensus of opinion” clearly refers to the viewpoint of the doctors, whereas the use of the single word “consensus” could indicate that doctors have agreed on a policy regarding the prescription of antibiotics, even though their opinions on the subject vary. 

This difference justifies the addition of the words “of opinion” to create a more specific meaning in the first sentence.

To learn more about the subtle nuances that the English language can convey, read “Combatting or Combating: Grammatical Rules for Proper Usage.”

Such nuances are difficult to explain and may be tricky to spot, but they can help you fine-tune your speech and writing, and can bring you a lot of joy as you explore them. Let’s consider the nuances of meaning in the phrase “general consensus.”

Is General Consensus Necessarily Nuanced?

Image by Alicja via Pixabay

While many people argue that the phrase general consensus is redundant or tautological, some people argue that it is, in fact, nuanced and conveys subtle shades of meaning. This argument comes from the slight variations in meaning that can be ascribed to each word, “general” and “consensus.”

If you look up the word “general” in a dictionary, you will see similes that range from universal to “common,” “popular,” “extensive,” “wide” — even “rough” or “imprecise.” This is a very large range of meanings.

The word “consensus” is a bit less varied in meaning, but, even here, there is a range. Similes for “consensus” include “agreement,” “harmony,” “unison,” and “concurrence.” Some of these words imply a more complete agreement than others.

The Subtlety of Adjectives

By considering these meanings, you should be able to see that modifying or qualifying the noun “consensus” with an adjective like “general” can create valuable, subtle shifts in meaning. This might be easier to see using different adjectives. Consider these examples:

After many hours of conversation, we reached a consensus on the color scheme for the wedding.

The lack of an adjective to qualify the noun “consensus” means that we simply understand that an agreement was reached.

After many hours of conversation, we reached an uneasy consensus on the color scheme for the wedding.

After many hours of conversation, we reached a false consensus on the color scheme for the wedding.

The adjectives “uneasy” and “false” give us the sense that, although there was an agreement, it was far from perfect, and that some parties may have been unhappy or dishonest.

After many hours of conversation, we were reaching a growing consensus on the color scheme for the wedding.

The adjective “growing” gives us the sense that the agreement is not complete but is a work in progress.

After many hours of conversation, we reached a family consensus on the color scheme for the wedding.

After many hours of conversation, we reached a universal consensus on the color scheme for the wedding.

The adjectives “family” and “universal” both contextualize the extent of the consensus. In the first example, we understand that everyone in the family agreed on the color scheme. In the second, we understand that everyone present agreed.

An Argument for Nuance

Given the examples we’ve discussed above, you may now be able to understand the argument that the addition of the adjective “general” to the phrase “general consensus” is not redundant, but usefully nuanced. 

We’ve already discussed some examples with widely varying meanings.

But to understand how subtle the use of different adjectives can be, consider these examples, which all make use of adjectives that might be listed as similes for “general,” but convey slightly different shades of meaning:

1. There is a rough consensus among scientists that climate change is real.

2. There is widespread consensus among scientists that climate change is real.

3. There is a general consensus among scientists that climate change is real.

4. There is consensus among scientists that climate change is real.

5. There is an overwhelming consensus among scientists that climate change is real.

6. There is a universal consensus among scientists that climate change is real.

If you read these examples carefully, you should notice that there is a scale of increasing intensity from the first to the last sentence.

At one end of the scale, the phrase “rough consensus” suggests that many, but perhaps not the majority, of scientists agree about the existence of climate change.

At the other end, the phrase “universal consensus” suggests that all scientists, without exception, agree that climate change exists.

Sentence four, which does not qualify the noun “consensus” with an adjective, is the most neutral of these six examples.

You should now realize that the phrase “general consensus” acknowledges that, while there is widespread or majority agreement, it’s possible that not all of the people in the group under discussion actually agree.

In this argument, then, the phrase “general consensus” is far from redundant, but, instead, contains a valuable subtlety of meaning.

Image by Phil Coffman via Unsplash

Final Thoughts

It can be very tempting to merely repeat commonly used phrases because we hear them so often that they sound correct even when they are not.

It is always worth interrogating the meaning of common phrases before you use them to make sure that you are conveying exactly the meaning you want to get across.

When it comes to writing for business purposes, it is a good rule to avoid redundancy or tautology, but, in more informal speech, these “errors” are far more acceptable. Still, in any situation, don’t use phrases you don’t understand just because you think they sound clever.

However, the English language offers a wide range of meanings through words that may seem to mean the same thing, but convey subtly different connotations. There is great value in exploring these shades of meaning to enrich your language and your experience of it.