Tuesday, March 8, 2011


(A shortened version of this article appeared in the Natl Post on March 7)

We are an island surrounded, on all sides, by repetitive pleonasms.


Howard Richler

If the cliché is the curse of the writer, the pleonasm is the plague of the politician. I first became aware of politicians’ penchant for pleonasms in 1993.In an interview with CBC’s Hana Gartner, then PM Jean Chretien once stated that he was respected by most Quebecers, and that it was only the “intellectual intelligentsia” who dissed him. South-of-the border, George Herbert Bush probably outdid Chretien in one of his televised debates. He made reference to the “economic economy.” Small wonder his economic policies were not too popular with the American populace living in the United States. Former President Calvin Coolidge declared in the 1920s that “When large numbers of men are unable to find work, unemployment results.” Probably the master of the political pleonasm was former Vice President of the USA Dan Quayle who in 1986 referred to “precise precision,” and later in 1989 stated “If we don`t succeed, we run the risk of failure.”

One need not be a North American politician to think or talk in this manner. Billy Sneddon, the leader of the Liberal Party in Australia, declared in 1974, "We didn't lose the election because they got more votes than we did. We just got less than them." Occasionally, even a non-politician is capable of these gems. Actress Brooke Shields once opined, “Smoking can kill you, and if you’ve been killed, you’ve lost a very important part of your life,” and football coach Tom Landry averred, “Football is an incredible game. Sometimes it’s so incredible, it’s unbelievable.”

These are some of the more egregiously flagrant examples of redundant language but yea we are not drowning in a sea of unnecessary words, rather in a veritable swamp. Why can't things be merely null, why do they have to be void? If I look in every nook, must I explore every cranny? Must I desist when I cease, abet when I aid, choose when I pick and rave when I rant? Can't I just cease, aid, pick and rant? When we talk about “complete annihilation,” “false pretenses,” “foreign imports,” “close proximity,” a couple being joined together,” a “lesbian woman,” and a “woman pregnant with child,” I ask, what are the alternatives?

Have you ever seen a young geezer, a cold water heater, a non-living survivor, or a non-lazy bum? I've smelled, with my own nose, different bouquets but the only type I've ever seen, with my own eyes, is the flowery variety.

Am I paranoid, or is there some secret of time only I can't intuit? Former movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn said, “I never make predictions, especially about the future” and the hoi polloi are constantly referring to “future plans,” and “advance warning.” This implies there are alternatives like past plans and an after warning. The past is equally beguiling. Why do we specify “past experience” and “never before”? Aren't all experiences “past”? Why does “before” have to be added to “never”? Is there a hidden quantum dimension called the “never after?” I worry when someone tells me the “honest truth,” or gives me a “garden salad” to eat, or something “100 % pure” to drink. Does that mean if they only tell me the truth or ply me with a mere salad or a beverage that's only pure I'm in “serious danger?” Do I overexaggerate? Please R.S.V.P so I can overcome my state of uneasy anxiety.

I thought acronyms were used as a shortening technique. But people don’t seem to realize that when they talk about their PIN number, an ATM machine, a DMZ zone, the HIV virus and an ABM missile that they are effectively saying “number number,” “machine machine,” “zone zone,” “virus virus” and “missile missile,” respectively.

Mercifully, it takes but a single word to describe verbal redundancy. The term is “pleonasm” defined by the OED as “the use of more words in a sentence than are necessary to express the meaning.” It derives from the Latin pleonasmus which, in turn, comes from the Greek pleonasmos (more-ness). Antony's line in the play Julius Caesar, “the most unkindest cut of all,” is an example of a pleonasm done for effect, as is the biblical "I am that I am.” In any case, Moses was probably leery about accusing a capricious Burning Bush of being redundant.

Most pleonasms, however, are not so stylish and only denote poor form. “Could you repeat that again?” is an example of a commonly used pleonasm. A redundancy can be avoided by saying either “Could you say that again?” or “Could you repeat that?” Avoid saying “each and every” and “at this point in time” when “every” and “at this time” suffice, nor say "she is a woman who" when "she is" will do, or use "if and when" when only "if" is required. The word “fact” is a major pleonastic culprit. “In spite of the fact” can be replaced with “though,” “owing to the fact” can be reduced to “because,” and “unaware of the fact” can be shortened to “unaware that.”

Perhaps I'm just an unprogressive conservative who pines for the days when you didn't need to qualify that a gift was free, a victim innocent, a fact true, a record new, and scholarship academic. In the past, one didn't have to specify strictly private or natural grass. Then again, some pleonasms like “cash money” and “disposable garbage” have evolved into possible states of non-redundancy. Some might say that in the past “heterosexual sex” was pleonastic. Unfortunately, a former pleonasm, “healthy tan,” has mutated into an oxymoronic state in our ozone-depleted world.

So, who is to blame? As I live and breathe, I think I know the party responsible for our modern orgy of redundancy. (itl)J'accuse(itl) Raid Bug Repellant. They unveiled the slogan “Raid kills bugs dead” in 1966 and to keep pace with this linguistic overkill, other ads stressed products that were “new innovations,” “more superior” and “very unique.” McDonald’s isn’t content to sell billions of hamburgers but “billions and billions,” and Soft Soap Body Wash doesn’t merely make you “clean,” you become “more than just clean.” And don't think the pleonastic process only flows towards aggrandizement. Isn't a dot miniscule enough? Must we have microdots?

N.B. Making a duplicate copy of this article in any shape or form without my express, agreed permission, and authorization is totally and utterly allowed, and indeed more preferable than alternate options.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your delightful commentary. "Very unique" has been my pet peeve for years and now you've given me endless new things to complain about -- I love it!