Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 10 April 2016





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

When redundancy triumphs

Use and abuse of the English language:

The following sentence was taken from a story appearing in a local newspaper recently.

Hollywood movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn once quipped, Anyone who sees a psychiatrist ought to have his head examined.

Funny line, right? But did anything about that sentence make your forehead wrinkle? Was the repetition in the quip so conspicuous that you overlooked the more subtle repetition in the phrase Hollywood movie mogul?

The noun Hollywood implies the US motion-picture industry, so a Hollywood movie mogul is ‘a motion-picture-industry movie mogul’. To eliminate the repetition, we should make it either Hollywood mogul or movie mogul.


This is redundancy which we, Sri Lankans have become addicted. A large part of our English speech and writing is unnecessary and boring, which makes reading and conversation a chore. We slog through the repetitious, and tarry when we should be moving on. Finally, redundancy triumphs.

One reason for our extravagant use of words is the absurd feeling that an idea is more effective if it is repeated and reinforced. In those days of terrorist problems, a politico commented that he would meet a LTTE representative in any place, which would depend not merely on a mutual decision but on a mutual decision between him and the representative.

Another cause is a failure to understand what words mean. A local monthly magazine would not have stated of a motion picture that it extolled the evils of the advertising business if it knew what extolled meant. The weather forecaster would not have said, “Tomorrow afternoon, the temperature will gradually plummet, if he knew the meaning of plummet.


There is a third reason for our extravagant use of words—a desire to make what is being done, however simple and routine it may be, sound grand and complicated. A local professional association, at its Annual Recognition Dinner, scheduled an associative hour rather than the cocktail hour. What does one do during an associative hour? Get acquainted? Not since computer language has descended on us.

A copy-editor knows the word redundancy, which Webster’s New International Dictionary, defines as ‘the generic term for the use of more words than are needed to express one’s meaning.’ But every good copy editor should know the rhetorical term pleonasm, which means using more words than necessary.

If the prose we edit is like a garden that we tend, taking care to remove any unwanted or unnecessary growth, pleonasm is the overgrowth we trim and the weeds we eradicate.

Like redundancy, pleonasm can refer to any superfluous or unnecessarily repetitive use of words. But, more specifically, it denotes a word or phrase that can be deleted without altering the meaning—or, as Webster puts it elegantly, ‘the use of words whose omission would leave one’s meaning intact.’

Everywhere you look you will find pleonasms embedded in our speech and writing, from the substandard more preferable, to the ubiquitous free gift and close proximity, to the pretentious use of reticent for reluctant in the phrase reticent to talk (reticent means ‘reluctant to talk’).

Pleonasm takes root in the innocently redundant habits of childhood and reaches full flower in the countless excesses of adulthood that we utter without thinking, such as hot water heater, future plans, past history, please RSVP, mental telepathy, added bonus, PIN number, and three a.m. in the morning.


There are scores and scores of pleonastic set phrases in the language—such as write down, tiny bit, none at all, temper tantrum, and up in the air—that only an overzealous copy editor would tinker with.

He has a problem. Should he wield the red pen when faced with familiar locutions like safe haven, lag behind, personal opinion, protest against, filled to capacity, major breakthrough, best ever, brief summary, pick and choose, ultimate goal, root cause, during the course of, and empty hole? Would he strike Sahara desert because Sahara is Arabic for ‘desert’?

Donnish view

Expert career linguists say that pleonasm may be justifiable when the intention is to present thoughts with particular force. In such expressions as ‘I saw it with my own eyes’, and ‘never ever do that again’ we see pleonasm used intentionally as a rhetorical device—as this writer used it with scores and scores in the previous paragraph.

H. W. Fowler in Modern English Usage notes that many pleonastic set phrases were created to achieve emphasis, but because of overuse they now invariably wind up “boring rather than striking the hearer.”

Many of these—such as aid and abet; sole and exclusive; null and void; terms and conditions have been adopted from legal jargon.

Yet we should not hesitate to wield our red pens when omitting a word or more from a common locution would, with one stroke, cure it of both repetition and banality.

The following hackneyed phrases are indefensibly pleonastic: final conclusion; end result; new recruit; temporary reprieve; necessary requirement; advance warning; advance planning; opening gambit; compete with (or meet with or interact with) each other; true (or actual or real) fact; passing fad; fresh new (idea, look, etc.); new beginning; new innovation; general consensus(of opinion); physically present; congregate together; continue to remain; endorse on the back; and dwindling down. (I remember how my English master, Mr. James gleefully caught me whenever I said a pleonastic set phrase, in my good old school days).

One might say that my view is cranky and donnish, that I want to keep the English language from growing, and to impose a standard and rigid language. Far from it.

English language should be specific and concrete, eloquent where possible, playful where possible, and personal so that we don’t all sound alike.

Instead, high crimes and misdemeanors are visited upon it, and those who commit them do not understand that the crimes are crimes against themselves. English language belongs to all of us. It is a very valuable possession.


Seylan Sure
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