tl;dr

The slang “tl;dr” stands for “too long; didn’t read.” The context is often either a bad joke or a shallow understanding.

What bothers me most about tl;dr is the mindset it implies, scanning everything but reading nothing. I find myself slipping into that mode sometimes. Skimming is a vital skill, but it can become so habitual that it crowds out reflective reading.

When I realize everything I’m reading is short and new, when my patience has atrophied to the point that I get annoyed at long tweets, I’ll read something long and old to restore my concentration and perspective.

Related posts:

C. S. Lewis on reading old books
Never a time so completely parochial
Emily Dickinson versus Paris Hilton

29 thoughts on “tl;dr

  1. “tl;dr” as a criticism is actually wonderful feedback. Writing clear, concise English is harder that just brain-dumping, and is much more valuable to both the reader and the author. A “tl;dr” response usually indicates that the value just isn’t there.

    Interestingly, I’ve seen a number of long (and great!) blog posts that begin with a “tl;dr” summary from the author. This serves the same purpose as the business report’s “Executive Summary” section, or the academic paper’s “Abstract” on the first page.

  2. Honestly, John, I frequently see people posting this when prose is structured poorly. For some reason, and increasing number of English-readers are daunted by WALL-OF-TEXT and will simply quit rather than navigate large sections of untitled content. I find that people that I know will read more if I take extra care to break it up into consumable parts. Page/Content width (small is better than big) plays a role in this, as-well.

  3. Ross: I appreciate tight prose, and I appreciate a good abstract to a long article. However, I’ve usually seen “tl;dr” as a snotty comment and not constructive criticism. I’d be reluctant to apply it to my own writing because of the negative connotation.

  4. Unfortunately, some people’s use of e-mail warrants this kind of response…but they never receive it because people are trying to not be rude. Ironically, it could be argued that rudeness is exactly what elicits the tl;dr response.

  5. Same opinion as Ross – only time I find myself thinking “tl;dr” is when someone took a simple idea & tried to turn it into the Great American Novel. Be respectful of our time – cut to the chase, tell us up front what you’re saying. Expound on it later if you like.

    There is one guy on StackOverflow (hi dwelch!) who I believe is genetically incapable of writing a response less than a page long. The sad thing is he’s pretty helpful, but he just rambles on and puts to words every single thought, opinion and distraction that enters his head. A couple of my co-workers have pegged him as autistic; I just think he’s a guy who works by himself who loves to explain stuff, but online he never gets the “eyes glazed over” visual feedback that says “OK, enough!”

  6. I’ve only seen TL;DR in two contexts:
    (a) by a commenter saying “I didn’t care enough to read about the subtle and informed point you just spent a lot of time trying to make… rather I’m going to make a shallow and ill-informed response to the title of your post”
    (b) by an author, at the beginning/end of an article, saying “Look, I know that some of you might not read this whole thing, but I at least want you to get a few key points before you go making inane comments on my article”

    Actually, at my last conference I presented a poster with a TL;DR section… it was just a bulleted list of the main 3-4 points of the poster. Not sure if it was actually helpful for anyone, though.

  7. signal v noise
    like big data, here is so much out there to consume nowadays, unlike before when you had to pick up the daily paper or trek to the library. It’s harder to get the signal out of the noise.
    It’s also akin to obesity. A relatively new problem that can be attributed to abundance of that which used to be hard to come by, but instead of calories its content.

  8. when my patience has atrophied to the point that I get annoyed at long tweets

    Hilarious! That’s got to be a new benchmark for a short attention span. I, too, sometimes get just a bit cranky…

    But TL;DR? Seriously? Are folks so hurried and rude that they can’t respond with something like, “Could you provide me an abstract or executive summary?” rather than this cryptic and snotty abbreviation? Heck, you can make that response into a custom signature block in Outlook, so it’s even QUICKER to send than that T thingy.

  9. @Mike Anderson

    Yes. I would argue that, for many of the internet’s denizens, “TL;DR” is far less cryptic than… “an abstract or executive summary” or “custom signature block” or “Outlook”. My 19 y.o. sister rolls her eyes at me when I even ask her to email me… Her eyes betray the same disdain I have for people asking me to send them a “fax” and the same annoyance I have when someone leaves a voicemail for me that could have easily fit into an SMS.

    When used as the response to an article, TL;DR is meant in part as a criticism of the original author… a shorter, terser version of the following:

    Dear Sir,
    It has come to my attention during my attempt to read the article I just linked to from Reddit that you are vastly out-of-touch with your readership. If you actually want your ideas to be competitive in the 21st century, you better get your shit together and drop your word counts. I’m actually trying to read your article on the 3 inch screen on my smart phone while I take a dump. Your ideas are competing with the humorous obscenities that others have scratched on the door of the bathroom stall and I’m going to need to put my phone away in order to reach for the toilet paper in about 37 seconds. And I still have no idea what the point is that you are trying to make. Its not that I don’t care what you have to say, but if you can’t get it across more efficiently, I have better things to do.
    And I’m not the only one.

    The fact that it might come across as cryptic to anyone who is not “in the know” simply adds to the humor of the criticism, highlighting that the target of TL;DR is out-of-touch with how the internet works, ca. 2012, and doesn’t realize that clarity and brevity are key factors in the competition between ideas.

    The Wikipedia community “gets it”:

    Traditionally, the phrase too long; didn’t read (abbreviated tl;dr) has been used on the Internet as a reply to an excessively long statement. It indicates that the reader did not actually read the statement due to its undue length.[2] This essay especially considers the term as used in Wikipedia discussions, and examines methods of fixing the problem when found in article content.
    As a label, it is sometimes used as a tactic to thwart the kinds of discussion which are essential in collaborative editing. On the other hand, tl;dr may represent a shorthand acknowledgement of time saved by skimming over or skipping repetitive or poorly written material. Thus the implication of the symbol can range from a brilliant and informative disquisition being given up due to lack of endurance, interest, or intelligence, to a clustered composition of such utter failure to communicate that it has left the capable reader with a headache; judging this range is very subjective.

    (my own emphasis added. from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Too_long;_didn%27t_read)

    Some examples of TL;DR
    http://www.reddit.com/r/tldr/

  10. I feel so old reading this. I never have heard of tl;dr but now that I know it, I’ll use it. Interestingly, I mostly need this in the traditional print media world as it relates to novels, biographies, etc. To me, very few authors have enough good things to say to fill many hundreds of pages. I pretty much turn away very thick books. In the amount of time needed to read those, I could have read several thin books and achieved higher total satisfaction.

  11. I agree on the fact that an article with too low ratio signal/noise doesn’t deserve the time one would dedicate to read it. f I could, I would avoid reading a text with a low ratio even if it was only one sentence long, but the problem is that it takes a few paragraphs for a reader to assess what the ratio is, so it happens that people ends up reading a lot of “low ratio texts”, just because they are so short they don’t manage to realise their low density before they are over.

    However, I can’t help but noticing that the neologism is not “TLS/R;DR” but simply “TL;DR”. It’s all about the size, not the quality.

    Personally, when I see “TL;DR” as a response to an article, I can’t help but thinking that probably the reader had limited intellectual capacities. I imagine such a person like a computer with too little RAM, chocking in the attempt to run a large application, or like a sociopath unable to grasp the essence of human relationships. In essence a person less fortunate than most, lacking some of the skills that are essential in a word where knowledge is generated at an incredible pace.

    A “TL;DR” person is for me a sort of “minus habens” of the 21st century, deserving pity more than a response.

  12. I sink into this mindset as well. Trying to make myself put nose to paper more.

    I love how words change their meanings over the years; the primary sense of ‘scan’ was originally ‘to examine carefully; scrutinize’. Now it is more often used synonymously with ‘skim’. Being a descriptive rather than a prescriptive pedant, I am of course not censuring you :-)

  13. It depends on the forum. In plenty of places, tl;dr’s are helpful summaries by people that think “if you’re like me, you have a lot to read and have to skip some. I read this and can summarize it for you. Here is the short take-away:”.

    I’m grateful for people providing tl;dr’s.

  14. I’ve read quite a few brilliant books where I’d like to give “TL;DR” feedback to the author. In as rude way as possible to ensure that they get it – but I can’t really do that for a paper book in a way it can be done on blog comments.

    The problem is that people take 100 pages to say a 5 page idea. Or actually, they spend 100 pages to get to their point, 10 pages to say a 1-page main point, and another 100 pages to prove the point where the supporting ideas would easily fit in 5 pages. I acctually do finish most of these books, and in the end it still usually is time well spent – but it would be oh so much better if these 100 pages of fluff were edited out!

    Of course, fiction is something else entirely, but most books that try to be informative and insightful suffer from this. And the fault is economic. There are almost no authors that have 200 pages of unique and insightful things to say at once on a single main topic. But people won’t pay 10 bucks for a 10-page pamphlet, they somehow prefer the same book packaged in extra 200 pages…

  15. I took a speed-reading course in high school. Admittedly, that was a bone-freezingly long time ago and I presume that entirely different teaching methods have since come into fashion; but it taught me to scan, not to read. There were (of course?) immediate comprehension tests, but they rewarded lucky guessing.

  16. I never heard of “tl;dr” until now. I guess it just means the person making the comment does not have time to read the material. It’s a judgment call, but I agree that context matters.

    For instance, an outstanding employee might be upset if they had submitted a self-review to their boss only to have said boss respond with “tl;dr”. To add, skimming is not reading, it’s more like a keyword search function.

    In mathematical discourse a reader should NEVER skim. I was taught to read every single word and think about its meaning so that, in the end, I understand the statement of a theorem along with its proof. So to all champions of “tl;dr” I would say: RTFM.

  17. On a less serious note someone actually used it as their entire “review” of an ebook version of Moby Dick. I admit to laughing in sympathy.

  18. If I write something, then label it “tl;dr” — why did I write it in the first place? Given the level of self-awareness displayed by the label, I might as well preface it “LONG POINTLESS RAMBLINGS THAT YOU WOULD BE BETTER OFF TO JUST IGNORE”. If someone reads an article and responds “tl;dr” followed by their self-confessedly ignorant blathering, I might as well ignore it.

    It would be more accurate and useful if authors and respondents would just take the time and properly bracket all such useless drivel with fnord‘s.

  19. I haven’t encountered this specific form of complaint, but I have repeatedly, and disturbingly, encountered the response to results and analysis howcever succinct or well illustrated, that if the listener-reader needs to learn something new, or think aboit something for a time, or craft some program code with a little care (e.g., use Newton-Raphson rather than a clised form easy to understand expression), then the effort is not worth it and needs to be done some simpler way.

    I have also encountered high distrust and dusregard of published technical literature. It’s not like all that is pertinent or applicable or right, but it’s always seemed to me a good idea to read people reporting on what they tried and thought about and found, even if you disagree with them or think another approsch is better.

    It’s almost as if in even technical things if it doesn’t mske sense to uneducated intuition, it’s not eorth doing or knowing. I don’t know how widespread this sentiment is, bur it seems broader than people in the technical companies I know..

  20. Hi John. There’s a good book related to this topic titled The Shallows. It’s not specifically about the term “tl;dr”, but is about how the internet encourages our brains to be in the mode you describe, “scanning everything and reading nothing”. The author provides evidence that the newer ways we are absorbing information is literally rewiring our brains, making us less capable of the concentration required to read something “long and old”.

  21. I’m a scanner by nature! The best way to capture my attention is with a Title – then I can determine whether or not the article is worth reading. … that’s how I came over here via your facebook. But, I guess you already knew that!

  22. @neuromusic: That’s my point exactly. That author did a great job of writing and editing. When someone (rightfully) responds to your article with “tl;dr”, it means you’re guilty of what news editors call “burying the lede”. It’s a style of writing that attempts to grab the reader’s attention right away, and involve them in the story so they don’t skip to the next one. And it’s a style that works very well on the web.

  23. @Ross Patterson no, I wasn’t responding to his article with “TL;DR”… I was pointing out an example of the *author* used TL;DR correctly…

    He titled the post with a question.:
    “If you dropped a penny into the sea, how long would it take to get to the bottom of the Mariana Trench?”

    He answered the question in exhaustive detail.

    At the end of his detailed response, he gives the reader a TL;DR version:
    “TL;DR: About 3.5 hours”

  24. @neuromusic: James Cameron made it in 2 hours 36 minutes, so I guess he’s faster than a penny. :)

    I agree the author did well to summarize his conclusion, especially at the top. To paraphrase, “If you want to skip to the punch line, it’s 3.5 hours. If you want to know how I came up with that, keep reading.”

  25. TR;DL is actually a fairly common thing in forums. I have commented back with it many times and will continue to. The truth is that in threads that have no comments over three lines is it required to comment over 2 paragraph. Being long winded on the internet will get you ignored. It is fine to write something long at the start of the thread to lead the conversation, and replies can reflect that, but if you didn’t start the conversation, you are a guest in the debate. It is not your platform, it is the thread starters debate. TR;DL is actually a very nice way to convey it. Much better than banning them or blocking their IP. In every debate, you need to know what the general direction of the forum is going. If your comment will stick out like a sore thumb, then your doing something wrong.

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