When redundancy triumphs
Use and abuse of the English language:
The following sentence was taken from a story appearing in a local
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
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
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
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
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
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’?
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
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
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