Definitions

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Pleonasm

[plee-uh-naz-uhm]
Pleonasm is the use of more words (or even word-parts) than necessary to express an idea clearly. A closely related concept is rhetorical tautology, in which essentially the same thing is said more than once in different words (e.g "black darkness", "cold ice", "burning fire"). Regardless, both are a form of redundancy. Pleonasm and tautology each refer to different forms of redundancy in speech and the written word.

Pleonasm usage

Often, pleonasm is understood to mean a word or phrase which is useless, clichéd, or repetitive, but a pleonasm can also be simply an unremarkable use of idiom. It can even aid in achieving a specific linguistic effect, be it social, poetic, or literary. In particular, pleonasm sometimes serves the same function as rhetorical repetition — it can be used to reinforce an idea, contention or question, rendering writing clearer and easier to understand. Further, pleonasm can serve as a redundancy check: If a word is unknown, misunderstood, or misheard, or the medium of communication is poor — a wireless telephone connection or sloppy handwriting — pleonastic phrases can help ensure that the entire meaning gets across even if some of the words get lost.

Idiomatic expressions

Some pleonastic phrases are part of a language's idiom, like "safe haven" and "tuna fish" in English. They are so common that their use is unremarkable, although in many cases the redundancy can be dropped with no loss of meaning.

Pleonastic phrases like "off of" are common in spoken or informal written American English, as in a phrase like "keep the cat off of the couch". In a satellite-framed language like English, verb phrases containing particles that denote direction of motion are so frequent that even when such a particle is pleonastic, it seems natural to include it.

Professional and scholarly use

Some pleonastic phrases, when used in professional or scholarly writing, may reflect a standardized usage that has evolved over time; or a precise meaning familiar to specialists, but not necessarily to those outside that discipline. One such example is legally operative language ("null and void", "terms and conditions", "each and all") often drafted into legal documents. Although this type of usage may be favoured in certain contexts, it may also be disfavoured when used gratuitously to portray false erudition, obfuscate, or otherwise introduce unnecessary verbiage. This is especially so in disciplines (such as the natural sciences) where such imprecision may introduce critical ambiguities.

Stylistic preference

In addition, pleonasms can serve purposes external to meaning. For example, a speaker who is too terse often is interpreted as lacking ease or grace, because, in spoken and signed language, sentences are spontaneously created without the benefit of editing. The restriction on the ability to plan often creates much redundancy. In written language, removing words not strictly necessary sometimes makes writing seem stilted or awkward, especially if the words are cut from an idiomatic expression.

On the other hand, as is the case with any literary or rhetorical effect, excessive use of pleonasm weakens writing and speech; too many words distract from the content. Writers wanting to conceal a thought or a purpose obscure their meaning with verbiage. William Strunk Jr. advocated concision in The Elements of Style, (1918):

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Yet, one has only to look at Baroque, Mannerist, and Victorian sources for different opinions.

Literary uses

  • "This was the most unkindest cut of all."—William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar.
  • "From that day mortal, and this happie State/ Shalt loose, expell'd from hence into a World/ Of woe and sorrow"—John Milton, Paradise Lost. (See also Shakespeare's "Sonnet 81".) [This is questionable as an example because The author could be using one of several definitions of "hence." Hence could mean in this context "because of a preceding fact or premise;" therefore the statement would mean, that because the subject is "expell'd" from the original state it is placed "into a World/ Of woe and sorrow." Also an archaic use of hence is "from this time - henceforth" Thus the from indicating a change of place and hence indicating how long the change will last. A good method for determining what the authors intent was would be trying to determine which of these words would be an Anachronism]
  • "Beyond the garage were some decorative trees trimmed as carefully as poodle dogs."—Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep.

Pleonasm types

There are two kinds of pleonasm: syntactic pleonasm and semantic pleonasm.

Syntactic pleonasm

Syntactic pleonasm occurs when the grammar of a language makes certain function words optional. For example, consider the following English sentences:

"I know you are coming."
"I know that you are coming."

In this construction, the conjunction that is optional when joining a sentence to a verb phrase with know. Both sentences are grammatically correct, but the word that is considered pleonastic in this case.

The same phenomenon occurs in Spanish with subject pronouns. Since Spanish is a null subject language, which allows subject pronouns to be deleted when understood, the following sentences mean the same:

"Yo te amo."
"Te amo."

In this case, the pronoun yo ("I") is grammatically optional; both sentences mean "I love you" (however, they may not have the same tone or intention—this depends on pragmatics rather than grammar). Such differing but syntactically equivalent constructions, in many language, may also indicate a difference in register.

The process of deleting pronouns is called pro-dropping, and it also happens in many other languages, such as Japanese, Latin, Portuguese, some Slavic languages, and the Lao language. (It may also occur in colloquial English—as when, for example, a husband tells his wife, "Love you," and she replies, "Love you too.")

The pleonastic ne (ne pléonastique) expressing uncertainty in formal French works as follows:

"Je crains qu'il ne pleuve."
("I fear it may rain.")
"Ces idées sont plus difficiles à comprendre que je ne pensais."
("These ideas are harder to understand than I thought.")

Two more striking examples of French pleonastic construction are the word "aujourd'hui" translated as "today", but originally meaning "on the day of today", and the phrase "Qu'est-ce que c'est?" meaning "What's that?" or "What is it?", while literally it means "What is it that it is?".

When Robert South said, "It is a pleonasam , a figure usual in Scripture, by a multiplicity of expressions to signify one notable thing," he was observing the Biblical Hebrew poetic propensity to repeat thoughts in different words, since written Biblical Hebrew was a comparatively early form of written language and was written using oral patterning, which has lots of pleonasms. In particular, very many verses of the Psalms are split into two halves, each of which says much the same thing in different words. The complex rules and forms of written language as distinct from spoken language were not as well developed as they are today when the books making up the Old Testament were written. See also parallelism (rhetoric).

This same pleonastic style remains very common in modern poetry and songwriting (e.g., "Anne, with her father / is out in the boat / riding the water / riding the waves / on the sea", from Peter Gabriel's "Mercy Street").

Semantic pleonasm

Semantic pleonasm is more a question of style and usage than grammar. Linguists usually call this redundancy to avoid confusion with syntactic pleonasm, a more important phenomenon for theoretical linguistics. It can take various forms, including:

  • Overlap: One word's semantic component is subsumed by the other:

"Receive a free gift with every purchase."
"I ate a tuna fish sandwich."
"The plumber fixed our hot water heater." (This particular pleonasm was heavily attacked by George Carlin)
"Two editors in a row of this section have added addl. examples."

  • Prolixity: A phrase may have words which add nothing, or nothing logical or relevant, to the meaning.

"I'm going down south."
(South is not really "down", it is just drawn that way on maps by convention.)
"You can't seem to face up to the facts."
"He entered into the room."
"What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder."
"He raised up his hands in a gesture of surrender."

An expression like "tuna fish", however, might elicit one of many possible responses, such as:

  1. It will simply be accepted as synonymous with "tuna".
  2. It will be perceived as redundant (and thus perhaps silly, illogical, ignorant, inefficient, dialectal, odd, and/or intentionally humorous).
  3. It will imply a distinction. A reader of "tuna fish" could properly wonder: "Is there a kind of tuna which is not a fish? There is, after all, a dolphin mammal and a dolphin fish." This assumption turns out to be correct, as a "tuna" can also mean a prickly pear ; and "tuner" is pronounced essentially the same in some dialects of English.
  4. It will be perceived as a verbal clarification, since the word "tuna" is quite short, and may be misheard as "tune" followed by an aspiration, for example.

This is a good reason for careful speakers and writers to be aware of pleonasms, especially with cases such as "tuna fish", which is normally used only in some dialects of American English, and would sound strange in other variants of the language, and even odder in translation into other languages.

A similar situation is "ink pen" instead of just "pen" in the southern United States, where "pen" and "pin" are pronounced similarly. Or you could decide to order some "extra accessories" with your new camera.

Note that not all constructions that are typically pleonasms are so in all cases, nor are all constructions derived from pleonasms themselves pleonastic:

"Put that glass over there on the table."
(Could, depending on room layout, mean "Put that glass on the table across the room, not the table right in front of you"; if the room were laid out like that, most English speakers would intuitively understand that the distant, not immediate table was the one being referred to; however, if there were only one table in the room, the phrase would indeed be pleonastic. Also, it could mean, "Put that glass on that certain spot on the table"; thus in this case it is not pleonastic.)
"I'm going way down South."
(May imply "I'm going much farther south than you might think if I didn't stress the southerliness of my destination"; but such phrasing is also sometimes—and sometimes jokingly—used pleonastically when simply "south" would do; it depends upon the context, the intent of the speaker/writer, and ultimately even on the expectations of the listener/reader.)

Morphemes, not just words, can enter the realm of pleonasm: Some word-parts are simply optional in various languages and dialects. A familiar example to American English speakers would be the allegedly optional "-al-", probably most commonly seen in "publically" vs. "publicly" – both spellings are considered correct/acceptable in American English, and both pronounced the same, in this dialect, rendering the "publically" spelling pleonastic in US English; in other dialects it is "required", while it is quite conceivable that in another generation or so of American English it will be "forbidden". This treatment of words ending in "-ic", "-ac", etc., is quite inconsistent in US English – compare "maniacally" or "forensically" with "stoicly" or "heroicly"; "forensicly" doesn't look "right" in any dialect, but "heroically" looks internally redundant to many Americans (likewise there are thousands of mostly-American Google search results for "eroticly", some in reputable publications, but it does not even appear in the 23-volume, 23,000-page, 500,000-definition Oxford English Dictionary, the largest in the world, meanwhile even American dictionaries give the correct spelling as "erotically"). In a more modern pair of words Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers dictionaries say that "electric" and "electrical" mean exactly the same thing. However, the usual adverb form is "electrically". (For example, "The glass rod is electrically charged by rubbing it with silk.)

Some (mostly US-based) prescriptive grammar pundits would say that the "-ly" not "-ally" form is "correct" in any case in which there is no "-ical" variant of the basic word, and vice versa; i.e. "maniacally", not "maniacly", is correct because "maniacal" is a word, while "publicly", not "publically", must be correct because "publical" is (arguably) not a real word (it does not appear in the OED). This logic is in doubt, since most if not all "-ical" constructions arguably are "real" words and most have certainly occurred more than once in "reputable" publications, and are also immediately understood by any educated reader of English even if they "look funny" to some, or do not appear in popular dictionaries. Additionally, there are numerous examples of words that have very widely-accepted extended forms that have skipped one or more intermediary forms, e.g. "disestablishmentarian" in the absence of "disestablishmentary" (which does not appear in the OED). At any rate, while some US editors might consider "-ally" vs. "-ly" to be pleonastic in some cases, the vast majority of other English speakers would not, and many "-ally" words are not pleonastic to anyone, even in American English.

The most common definitely pleonastic morphological usage in English is "irregardless", which is very widely criticised as being a non-word. The standard usage is "regardless", which is already negative; adding the negative prefix ir- is worse than redundant, becoming oxymoronic as it logically reverses the meaning to "with regard to/for", which is certainly not what the speaker intended to convey. (According to most dictionaries that include it, "irregardless" appears to derive from confusion between "regardless" and "irrespective", which have overlapping meanings.)

Subtler redundancies

In some cases, the redundancy in meaning occurs at a syntactic level above the word, such as at the phrase level:

"It's déjà vu all over again."
"I never make predictions, especially about the future."

The redundancy of these two well-known statements is deliberate, for humorous effect. (See Yogiisms.) But one does hear educated people say "my predictions about the future of politics" for "my predictions about politics", which are equivalent in meaning. While predictions are necessarily about the future (at least in relation to the time the prediction was made), the nature of this future can be subtle (e.g., "I predict that he died a week ago"—the prediction is about future discovery or proof of the date of death, not about the death itself). Generally "the future" is assumed, making most constructions of this sort pleonastic. Yogi Berra's humorous quote above about not making predictions isn't really a pleonasm, but rather an ironic play on words.

Redundancy, and "useless" or "nonsensical" words (or phrases, or morphemes) can also be inherited by one language from the influence of another, and are not pleonasms in the more critical sense, but actual changes in grammatical construction considered to be required for "proper" usage in the language or dialect in question. Irish English, for example, is prone to a number of constructions that non-Irish speakers find strange and sometimes directly confusing or silly:

"I'm after putting it on the table."
("I (have) put it on the table". This example further shows that the effect, whether pleonastic or only pseudo-pleonastic, can apply to words and word-parts, and multi-word phrases, given that the fullest rendition would be "I am after putting it on the table".)
"Have a look at your man there."
("Have a look at that man there"; an example of word substitution, rather than addition, that seems illogical outside of the dialect. This common possessive-seeming construction often confuses the non-Irish enough that they do not at first understand what is meant. Even "have a look at that man there" is arguably further doubly redundant, in that a shorter "look at that man" version would convey essentially the same meaning.)
"She's my wife so she is."
("She's my wife." Duplicate subject and verb, post-complement, used to emphasize a simple factual statement or assertion.)
All of these constructions originate from the application of Irish Gaelic grammatical rules to the English dialect spoken, in varying particular forms, throughout the island.

Seemingly "useless" additions and substitutions must be contrasted with similar constructions that are used for stress, humour or other intentional purposes, such as:

"I abso-fuckin-lutely agree!"
(tmesis, for stress)
"Topless-shmopless—nudity doesn't distract me."
(shm-reduplication, for humour)
The latter of these is a result of Yiddish influences on modern English, especially East Coast US English.

Sometimes editors and grammatical stylists will use "pleonasm" to describe simple wordiness. This phenomenon is also called prolixity or logorrhea. Compare:

  • "The sound of the loud music drowned out the sound of the burglary."
  • "The loud music drowned out the sound of the burglary."

or even:

  • "The music drowned out the burglary."

The reader or hearer does not have to be told that loud music has a sound, and in a newspaper headline or other abbreviated prose can even be counted upon to infer that "burglary" is a proxy for "sound of the burglary" and that the music necessarily must have been loud to drown it out. Many are critical of the excessively abbreviated constructions of "headline-itis" or "newsspeak", so "loud [music]" and "sound of the [burglary]" in the above example should probably not be properly regarded as pleonastic or otherwise genuinely redundant, but simply as informative and clarifying.

Prolixity is also used simply to obfuscate, confuse or euphemise, and is not necessarily redundant/pleonastic in such constructions, though it often is. "Post-traumatic stress disorder" (shellshock) and "pre-owned vehicle" (used car) are both tumid euphemisms but are not redundant. Redundant forms, however, are especially common in business, political and even academic language that is intended to sound impressive (or to be vague so as to make it hard to determine what is actually being promised, or otherwise misleading), For example: "This quarter, we are presently focusing with determination on an all-new, innovative integrated methodology and framework for rapid expansion of customer-oriented external programs designed and developed to bring the company's consumer-first paradigm into the marketplace as quickly as possible."

In contrast to redundancy, an oxymoron results when two seemingly contradictory words are adjoined.

Other forms

Redundancies sometimes take the form of foreign words whose meaning is repeated in the context:

  • "We went to the 'Il Ristorante' restaurant."
  • "The La Brea tar pits are fascinating."
  • "Roast beef served with au jus."

These sentences use phrases which mean, respectively, "the the restaurant restaurant", and "the the tar tar". However, many times these redundancies are necessary — especially when the foreign words make up a proper noun as opposed to a common one. For example, "We went to Il Ristorante" is acceptable provided your audience can infer that it is a restaurant (if they understand Italian and English it might likely, if spoken rather than written, be misinterpreted as a generic reference and not a proper noun, leading the hearer to ask "Which ristorante do you mean?" Such confusions are common in richly bi-lingual areas like Montreal or the American Southwest when people mix phrases from two languages at once). But avoiding the redundancy of the Spanish phrase in the second example would only leave you with an awkward alternative: "La Brea pits are fascinating."

Most find it best to not even drop articles when using proper nouns made from foreign languages:

  • "The movie is playing at the 'El Capitan' theater."

This is also similar to the treatment of definite and indefinite articles in titles of books, films, etc., where the article can — indeed "must" — be present where it would otherwise be "forbidden":

  • "Stephen King's 'The Shining' is scary."
    (Normally, the article would be left off following a possessive.)
  • "I'm having an 'An American Werewolf in London' movie night at my place."
    (Seemingly doubled article, which would be taken for a stutter or typographical error in other contexts.)

Some cross-linguistic redundancies, especially in placenames, occur because a word in one language became the title of a place in another (e.g. the Sahara Desert—"Sahara" is an English approximation of the word for "deserts" in Arabic). An extreme example is Torpenhow Hill in Cumbria, the name of which is composed of words that essentially mean "hill" in the language of each of the cultures that have lived in the area during recorded history, such that it could be translated as "Hillhillhill Hill". See the List of tautological place names for many more examples.

Acronyms can also form the basis for redundancies; this is known humorously as RAS Syndrome (for Redundant Acronym Syndrome Syndrome):

  • "I forgot my PIN number for the ATM machine."
  • "I upgraded the RAM memory of my computer."
  • "She is infected with the HIV virus."

In all the examples listed above, the word after the acronym repeats a word represented in the acronym—respectively, "Personal Identification Number number", "Automated Teller Machine machine", "Random Access Memory memory", "Human Immunodeficiency Virus virus". (See RAS Syndrome for many more examples.) The expansion of an acronym like PIN or HIV may be well-known to English speakers, but the acronyms themselves have come to be treated as words, so little thought is given to what their expansion is (and "PIN" is also pronounced the same as the word "pin"; disambiguation is probably the source of "PIN number"; "SIN number" for "Social Insurance Number number" [sic] is a similar common phrase in Canada.) But redundant acronyms are more common with technical (e.g. computer) terms where well-informed speakers recognize the redundancy and consider it silly or ignorant, but mainstream users might not, since they may not be aware or certain of the full expansion of an acronym like "RAM".

Some redundancies are simply typographical. For instance, when a short inflexional word like "the" occurs at the end of a line, it is very common to accidentally repeat it at the beginning of the line, and large number of readers would not even notice it.

Carefully constructed expressions, especially in poetry and political language, but also some general usages in everyday speech, may appear to be redundant but are not. This is most common with cognate objects (a verb's object that is cognate with the verb):

  • "She slept a deep sleep.

Or, a classic example from Latin:

The words need not be etymologically related, but simply conceptually, to be considered an example of cognate object:

  • "We wept tears of joy."

Such constructions are not actually redundant (unlike "She slept a sleep" or "We wept tears") because the object's modifiers provide additional information. A rarer, more constructed form is polyptoton, the stylistic repetition of the same word or words derived from the same root:

As with cognate objects, these constructions are not redundant because the repeated words or derivatives cannot be removed without removing meaning or even destroying the sentence, though in most cases they could be replaced with non-related synonyms at the cost of style (e.g., compare "The only thing we have to fear is terror".)

Semantic pleonasm and context

In many cases of semantic pleonasm, the status of a word as pleonastic depends on context. The relevant context can be as local as a neighbouring word, or as global as the extent of a speaker's knowledge. In fact, many examples of redundant expressions are not inherently redundant, but can be redundant if used one way, and are not redundant if used another way. The "up" in "climb up" is not always redundant, as in the example "He climbed up and then fell down the mountain." Many other examples of pleonasm are redundant only if the speaker's knowledge is taken into account. For example, most English speakers would agree that "tuna fish" is redundant because tuna is a kind of fish. However, given the knowledge that "tuna" can also refer a kind of edible prickly pear , the "fish" in "tuna fish" can be seen as non-pleonastic, but rather a disambiguator between the fish and the prickly pear.

Conversely, to English speakers who do not know Spanish, there is nothing redundant about "the La Brea tar pits" because the name "La Brea" is opaque: the speaker does not know that it is Spanish for "the tar". Similarly, even though scuba stands for "self-contained underwater breathing apparatus", a phrase like "the scuba gear" would probably not be considered pleonastic because "scuba" has been reanalyzed into English as a simple adjective, and is no longer used as a noun. (Most do not even know that it is an acronym, and do not spell it SCUBA or S.C.U.B.A. See radar for a similar example.)

See also

References

  • Smyth, Herbert Weir (1920). Greek Grammar. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-36250-0.

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