Monthly Tip

Why Existential Doesn’t Belong in Everyday Writing

Ex-is-TEN-tial. It’s a great big word, but what does it mean? I remember it from Psychology 101, but why am I seeing it so often these days?

  • Oh, please. That’s hardly an existential crisis.
  • The adoption of ad-blocking technology is rising steeply. Some see an existential threat to online content as we know it, but others see a new business niche.
  • In the letter, Pope Francis described the “existential and moral ordeal” faced by women who have terminated pregnancies and said he had “met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision.”
  • That’s the existential threat we face.
  • Baby is immersed in existential chat because, seriously, what does it all mean?!

Let’s start with how it’s defined:
Existential is an adjective that means relating to existence, especially human existence; of, relating to, or characteristic of existentialism (an existential hero); based on observation or experience.

In the philosophical realm, existential pertains to what is known by experience rather than by reason, to what can be proven versus what is theoretical. If you wrestle with questions involving the meaning of life, for example, you might be having an existential crisis.

Vocabulary.com provides this down-to-earth example:
Existential
can also relate to existence in a more concrete way. For instance, the objections of your mother-in-law may pose an existential threat to the continuation of your Friday night card game. Often the word carries at least a nodding reference to the philosophy of existentialism associated with Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, and others, which emphasizes the individual as a free agent responsible for his actions.

Existential apparently originated in the 1690s from the Late Latin existentialis / existential. In the 1930s, it was mentioned in the works of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who wrote, “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.”

Given these descriptions, consider if eliminating existential would change the meaning of the phrases that appeared above.

  • Oh, please. That’s hardly an existential a crisis.
  • The adoption of ad-blocking technology is rising steeply. Some see an existential a threat to online content as we know it, but others see a new business niche.
  • In the letter, Pope Francis described the “existential and moral ordeal” faced by women who have terminated pregnancies and said he had “met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision.” (I won’t mess with the pope’s words.)
  • That’s the existential threat we face.

Get ready to smile when you see how this baby reacts to an explanation of existentialism:
Baby Is Immersed In Existential Chat Because, Seriously, What Does It All Mean?!

Why are we seeing existential so often today? I suspect it’s maybe a fad. If effective communication is clear and concise, surely there are one-, two- or three-syllable words that adequately express the implications of existential better and more concisely than does a four-syllable word: real, true, actual, factual, observed, valid, pragmatic, subjective, accepted, tried-and-true.

I doubt that I’m the only person who pauses when encountering existential. Good writing clarifies rather than confuses readers. Think twice before you get on the existential bandwagon.


Ruthless Editor follows The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law guidelines for word and punctuation usage. Webster’s New World College Dictionary serves as a secondary reference.

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