Pleonasm: A Word Every Writer and Copyeditor Should Know
by Charles Harrington Elster
This article first appeared in the August-September 2012 issue of Copyediting.
The 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 (used here attributively) implies the 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.
Every copyeditor knows the word redundancy, which Webster’s New International Dictionary, second edition (1934), defines as “the generic term for the use of more words than are needed to express one’s meaning.” But every copyeditor should also know the rhetorical term pleonasm (PLEE-uh-naz’m), which comes through Latin from the Greek pleonasmos, abundance, which comes in turn from pleonazein, to be excessive, and pleion, more.
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 2 puts it elegantly, “the use of words whose omission would leave one’s meaning intact.”
“We know we have a pleonasm,” writes Arthur Quinn in Figures of Speech: 60 Ways to Turn a Phrase, “when we can eliminate words without changing meanings. Pleonasms are what blue pencils remove.” To put that another way, pleonasms are what keep copyeditors employed—and on their toes.
To ponder pleonasms is to meditate on the myriad excesses of the English language and our tolerance for them. Everywhere you look you will find pleonasms embedded in our speech and writing, from the substandard where is it at? and 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, as in My friend, she told me (a double subject), 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, three a.m. in the morning, and the reason . . . is because (because means “for the reason that”).
There are scores and scores (or should that just be one scores?) of pleonastic set phrases in the language—such as write down, tiny bit, tiny little, none at all, temper tantrum, and up in the air—that only an overzealous copyeditor would tinker with. But there are also a great many (is great many pleonastic?) common word combinations that can create a dilemma for the copyeditor on the qui vive for pleonasm. Should you wield the blue pencil when faced with familiar locutions like safe haven, lag behind, personal opinion, protest against, filled (or packed) to capacity, major breakthrough, best ever, brief summary, pick and choose, ultimate goal, root cause, during the course of, pizza pie, and empty hole? Would you strike the from the hoi polloi and desert from Sahara desert because hoi means “the” in Greek and Sahara is Arabic for “desert”? And while it’s easy to scoff at Raid’s pleonastic slogan, “Kills Bugs Dead!” what about the title of the TV show Unsolved Mysteries? Is that redundant or rhetorically defensible?
“Pleonasm may be justifiable,” says the Century Dictonary (1914), “when the intention is to present thoughts with particular perspicuity or force.” In such expressions as I saw it with my own eyes, he himself will go, and never ever do that again we see pleonasm used intentionally as a rhetorical device—as I used it with scores and scores and great many in the previous paragraph. And as “a rhetorical figure used for emphasis or clarity” (OED), pleonasm has a long history in our literature. To cite just one of many examples from the Bible, in the line thy rod and thy staff they comfort me from Psalm 23, they is pleonastic. Pleonasms also abound in Shakespeare, the most famous being the double superlative in this was the most unkindest cut of all.
“In general, pleonasms are a question of style or taste, not grammar,” write Bergen and Cornelia Evans in their Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957). “One may say the reason or the reason why, gather or gather together.” True enough (or just true?), but most pleonasms are not so venial as that, which may be an excusably pleonastic way of saying that most pleonasms are not so venial. “Nowadays,” says a 2004 citation for pleonasm in the OED, “pleonasm is more often thought of as a mistake than as an intentional rhetorical device.”
The writer who uses pleonasm intentionally should be held to the standard set by H. W. Fowler in Modern English Usage: Does it produce the desired effect, and does the occasion warrant it? But unconscious pleonasm—the inadvertent or involuntary kind, where, as Fowler puts it, a writer “expresses the same notion twice over in the belief that he is saying it once”—is a far more frequent and troublesome occurrence in edited prose. That’s the sort of stylistic misstep copyeditors should focus in on, or just focus on, and that I will spend the rest of this article spelling out for you in detail, or just spelling out for you. I promise not to subject you to a long litany of examples, just a litany of them.
Fowler notes that many pleonastic set phrases were created (not originally created) to achieve emphasis, but because of overuse they now invariably wind up “boring rather than striking the hearer.” Many of these—such as any and all; fit and proper; aid and abet; save and except; sole and exclusive; null and void; terms and conditions; cease and desist; and various and sundry—have been adopted from legal jargon. Other common pleonastic twins that usage authorities find objectionable include if and when; unless and until; compare and contrast (from educationese); first and foremost; and the much-despised each and every. The prudent copyeditor will completely eradicate such clichéd pairs.
Wait—did you notice the pleonasm in the previous sentence? It was “completely eradicate” (because eradicate means “to remove or destroy completely”). You should watch carefully what writers pair with completely. If a word that implies completion, fullness, or finality follows it—such as unanimous, finished, dead, disappear, wrong, full, empty, and surrounded—you have a pleonasm on your hands. A similar problem occurs with the word necessary, which is an absolute that should not be pleonastically modified by qualifiers like somewhat, especially, extremely, or absolutely.
Adverbs or prepositions are often needlessly glued to a verb, as in repeat again; reflect back; continue or proceed on; reduce down; evaporate or separate out; blend, merge, or combine together; and radiate, expand, cancel, or edit out—the last, sadly, a pet phrase among our ilk. (Whatever happened to cut, delete, and strike?). But with this sort of pleonasm there’s also a substantial gray area. Should you sharpen that blue pencil when up follows heat, raise, or rise? Should betrothed couples not be joined together?
Yet we should not hesitate to wield the blue pencil 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, which my wife gleefully caught me saying long ago, in my pleonastic youth.
Sometimes a superfluously worded idea is easy to spot. Audible to the ear, popular with the people, unexpectedly without warning, a panacea for all ills, and simultaneously at the same time fairly scream “pleonasm.” (The pleonast—a rare word meaning “one addicted to pleonasms”—would call these repetitions blatantly obvious.) But most pleonasms aren’t so glaring, and all too often, and all too easily, their excess wording eludes even the most vigilant among us, as one humbling example should illustrate.
In the introduction to my book The Accidents of Style, addressing the distinction between prone and supine, I wrote, “The word supine means ‘lying on one’s back.’ Rafael Nadal was lying supine on the grass of Wimbledon’s center court, but nobody seemed to know it.”
Did you catch the pleonasm? Obviously I didn’t, and lord knows how many times I had read it. My first reader, the author Richard Lederer, also missed it. So did my editor, my copyeditor, and my proofreader. The day of reckoning came recently when an alert reader emailed me to say that those lines left her feeling as if she’d “just hit a speed bump.” “Why didn’t you write ‘Rafael Nadal was supine on the grass’?” she asked.
Why didn’t I indeed! The journalist I was upbraiding had written that Nadal was “lying prone on the grass,” so you could argue that the parallel phrasing lying supine on the grass delivered my point “with particular perspicuity or force.” But that would be hooey. I was merely expressing the same notion twice over in the belief that I was saying it once—a delusion that affects most writers, even infallible ones like me.
So, with that mea culpa out of the way, let’s see how attuned you are to pleonasm. In each of the following sentences there is a common pleonasm that eluded a copyeditor. If you can spot them all, you have a fine eye for superfluity. (Explanations appear after the examples.)
Find the Pleonasms
1. “Federal and local authorities surrounded a small bank in Buena Park where an armed gunman was said to be holding at least one hostage” (Los Angeles Times).
2. “Banks began offering cards with a variety of different interest rates and fees” (New York Times).
3. “He has . . . just recently released his first documentary film” (Reuters).
4. “The two are both recently divorced” (Buffalo News).
5. “The band performed three original numbers that they had written” (San Diego public radio).
6. “Lynchburg is presently facing a $500,000 free-speech complaint.” (Lynchburg News & Advance, Virginia).
7. “Up until now, premium producers like Mercedes-Benz have had an easier time weathering economic storms” (BusinessWeek).
8. “Their home is still in the process of being renovated after Hurricane Katrina” (Associated Press).
9. “‘Maybe they’re actually ahead by now,’ I think to myself” (New York Daily News).
10. “A keyless chuck is included with it” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).
11. “A man is fighting for his life after being shot Sunday night outside of his home” (KRDO-TV, Colorado).
12. “At a campaign stop Monday, Mr. Brown had sought to distance himself from the controversy while at the same time stoking it” (New York Times)
13. “When Southwest first announced it would fly from Boston to Baltimore for $49 each way, JetBlue added a route there too” (Boston Globe).
1. A gunman is a person armed with a gun. Strike armed.
2. The word variety means “a number of different things thought of together” (Webster’s New World College Dictionary), so pairing it with different is pleonastic.
3. Pairing just with recently is pleonastic. Use one or the other.
4. Both is unnecessary when the idea of both is implied by the context.
5. The last four words, that they had written, are repetitive and superfluous. Or you could keep them and delete original.
6. Presently is superfluous.
7. Until means “up to the time of,” so pairing it with up is redundant. Make it until now or up to now.
8. The phrase in the process of adds nothing but baggage to the sentence.
9. You always think to yourself, so those two words should be deleted.
10. Strike with it and let included do its work alone.
11. The preposition of is unnecessary.
12.While and at the same time express the same idea, so the phrase is pleonastic.
13. First is unnecessary when it’s implicit that something is being done for the first time, or when it is paired with a verb (such as start, create, invent, or discover) that means doing something for the first time. Here’s another example of this common error: “It’s been 100 years since Edgar Rice Burroughs first introduced his accidental space traveler, John Carter, to readers” (San Diego Union-Tribune).
Charles Harrington Elster is the author of The Accidents of Style, The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations, Verbal Advantage, and other books on language. He was a consultant for Garner’s Modern American Usage.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Charles Harrington Elster.
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