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I am going to write a paragraph about an international disaster. But I have no idea which choice is proper / fixed / better sounding in this context:

The previous Saturday the United Nations Human Rights Council strongly condemned X for its .......... attacks on civilians, in a resolution that was stronger in criticism than the one passed by the Security Council on the same day. By a majority vote the Council asked X to immediately stop its attacks.

a. brutal
b. savage
c. merciless

According to the dictionary definitions:

Brutal = cruel, violent, and completely without feelings
Savage = extremely violent, wild, or frightening
Merciless = having or showing no mercy

As you see, these definitions are so close that a leaner like me can fall into doubt about how he/she should make a distinction between them and find a direct equivalent in their mother language(s).

That was why I decided to bring it up here to ask you for your opinions.

PS. I see no difference between "brutal" and "merciless", but "savage" has a slightly more violence / harshness involved in my mind, which I cannot explain. However, You are free to dispute it.

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    This board doesn't really give writing advice. However, savage is more likely to be used of an attack by a lone criminal (a wild, perhaps deranged person) and brutal of harsh treatment by an organisation. – Kate Bunting Jun 24 at 8:48
  • KB's comment makes me ask: are you simply wanting the appropriate adjective, or should it add information? I feel like savage implies something more impulsive -- one minister made a snap decision and the police followed orders -- whereas brutal is when they had meetings and consensus. – Owen Reynolds Jun 24 at 16:40
  • Your example context sounds like a news article. Regardless of what adjective you choose, I would infer from it that the UNHRC used that adjective in its condemnation. – Petr Hudeček Jun 25 at 4:46
  • Off topic: there're 2 'Council's in your quoted paragraph, so the last sentence is ambiguous. (Which one asked?) – Pablo H Jun 25 at 22:21
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Meanings

Brutal

Brutal is the word most associated with violence here.

When old McDonald kills a cow he can:

  1. Give it an overdose of sleeping drugs to gently kill it
  2. Cut it up with a chainsaw, smash it t pieces with a slegehammer, etc

Method 2 is brutal. It involves a lot of (unnecessary and excessive) violence.

If you know Mortal Kombat, you probably now the "Finish him. Brutality" bit. In those scenes, it's brutal because the characters are killed cruelly and violently.

Of course, brutal doesn't always mean violent and grim. It can, in some cases, be replaced with less violent synonyms like cruel, murderous, harsh, inhuman, etc.

Savage

Savage is often associated with animalistic and uncivilized things.

It can be used to mean things like:

  • not under human control
  • wild
  • rude
  • uncultured

We sometimes say "savage beasts" to talk about wild animals untamed by humans.

Merciless

You should understand what "mercy" is, since that's where "merciless" comes from.

Mercy can mean pity, lenience, compassion, favor, etc. Merciless just means "without mercy".

Imagine you're a level 100 player playing against a level 1 player in a chess game. The difference in your levels is huge. If you show mercy, you go easy on them. If you're merciless, you beat them without mercy, as if the level difference isn't there.

In your case...

Brutal

X attacked civilians such that it became a bloodbath. Bodies everywhere, blood stains every corner. The scene has become grim and gory.

Savage

X attacked civilians like animals. X's president doesn't care if those people were human. X's soldier killed everyone in sight, men, women and children. The pillage homes, acted like animals.

Merciless

X had major military superiority over Y (the civilian side). The knew Y couldn't fight back, but attacked anyway. They didn't want to risk an attack from Y. It's like dropping a nuclear bomb on a city with no means to counter counter nuclear weapons.

tl;dr

Brutal can mean violent and grim.

Savage can mean "like an animal".

Merciless can mean "without pity/compassion".

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  • 4
    That would depend on how you view X and how you want your readers to view X. An army killing everyone they see? Brutal. Soldiers killing mindlessly like animals? Savage. X massively overpowers the civilian side? Merciless. – John Zhau Jun 24 at 9:13
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    I would avoid 'savage' these days because of its association with the racist noun spelled the same used about indigenous peoples in colonial times. – Michael Harvey Jun 24 at 9:17
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    Even without that association (which I didn't know about), it's probably not a good word to describe and army or its country. It can make you sound like "The people of country X are animals!", which doesn't sound good in academic papers and can lead to more friction. – John Zhau Jun 24 at 9:24
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    In some cases, yes, "savage" would fit better. You can say a murderer who kills for fun a savage. However, when you're writing an academic paper related to something like politics, openly calling people "savages" may not be the best choice. Imaging someone like Bill Nye saying "The American soldiers killed like savages". That may raise some conflict and put the speaker (you) in trouble. After all, "savage" is more often used to express things like "uncultured" or "rude". "Brutal" and "merciless" don't carry the same kind of insulting and sound less subjective. – John Zhau Jun 24 at 14:41
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    In my mind the fitness of "savage" to describe an attack also depends on the level of technology used. I would be more inclined to call low-tech methods like machete-wielding soldiers "savage" than I would a high-tech attack like a drone strike. – Alexandre Aubrey Jun 24 at 17:33

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