Pleonasms


I base this text on a page Richard Nordquist[1] has published on about.com comprising common expressions (Phrasemes) which many (not just Richard) misclassify as redundancies (where the redundancies in his list are shown in parentheses).

Nordquist’s using the term redundancy is a over-generalisation since, by linguistic standards, they mostly would be classified as pleonasms.  A redundancy—permit me to paraphrase here—is the use of more information (i.e. words) as is otherwise necessary to convey a message. Pleonasms, by contrast, so long as they serve a function in communication, however ‘unconsciously’ applied by the speaker or writer, are different in that considerate and non-prescriptivists shall want not classify these as being unwelcome in language and communication.

Let me give an example:  If one was to say ‘innocent lives were lost’, we mean that lives were innocently taken or made redundant, also meaning people died unnecessarily or unnaturally. So choosing to use the word ‘innocent’ is not a redundancy since the  statement (though it may well have become cliché) actually saves words, where you would otherwise have to elaborate what you meant, excuse my saying ‘at the end of the day’.

Here are possible reasons for using the so-called redundant expressions:

  • for emphasis
  • deliberation
  • oxymoronic
  • ‘convenient collocation’*
  • as a nonce word (humour)
  • to express platitude
  • to be cliché
  • compensation for elipsis or erosion occurs in other places
  • to avoid elipsis (e.g. when speaking to a non-native speaker) for clarity
  • as isochrony (a fundamental aspect of English)
  • as tautology (a valid aspect of rhetoric)

* for lack of a better term, a ‘convenient’ collocation would be the use of an expression out of laziness, habit or lack thereof of a better term at the moment of utterance or, as in the case with ‘innocent lives’, saving on wordiness.

The other criticism may be that these expressions, whether they be labelled redundancies or pleonasms (or anything else for that matter), are of an informal register and/or purely colloquial (to contrast “literary” or ”formal”) and yet are they not all valid forms of expression (of mood and nuance)?

All too often the functions of communication which involve human feeling and emotion in speech are ignored by those who author grammar methods for both language learners and native-speakers (L1) speakers. These academics will try to warn us in case we might just get them confused with word-compounding, that is to say putting two or more words together to form a new word, as in ‚darkroom’ or ‚windmill’. Say what?

For a Thai or a Turk irregardless, our use of the verb to BE in English is to them considered a syntactic redundancy (syntactic pleonasm) but they certainly don’t go round telling us not to use it. If you tried telling an American or Brit (etc.) that he shouldn’t need use the verb ‘to be’ it would be like saying to the Thai that a spoon or chopsticks is/are a superfluous and they should go back to eating using their fingers.

Redundancy, if I may point out, is a subset of Pleonasm (not the other way round). Though redundancy is by definition considered ‘unnessary’ that does not make pleonasm…unnessary (excuse my reinforcing). So any utterance, however short, so long as it serves a purpose—and arguably every natural utterance does serve a purpose, including unexplainable ones—may in (actual) fact express that which reflects a very elemental aspect of life (cultural or even spiritual aspect). Judging someone’s words TO BE redundant, especially if the speaker is elaborating in his native tongue (or L1) is actually no more than belittlement, and reminiscent of colonialist attitudes.

Imagine someone telling you that your telling someone your dream when you awake (from it) is redundant. (Notice I have chosen, in the latter sentence, this rather more complex syntax for reasons I need not justify [and because I am using my L1 and since I presume to be writing to another who understands English enough to understand its grammar and context]). And no one need query, even, as to why I’ve chosen the punctuation marks I’ve used here either, since I have used (them) for a purpose.

If you consider the phrase ‘eat lunch’ to be a redundancy, then you will, as a native-English speaker, probably change your wording and say ‘have lunch’, (unless perhaps you are speaking to a non-English-native audience, in the event their command of English is slight). Your ‘naturally’ replacing eat with have is a purposeful transformation, whether done consciously or not. Consider it a kind of syntactic apophony, whereby instead of altering the sound, you are altering a whole lexical item.

As long as we have not conclusive evidence (excuse the pleonasm here) as to the origin of language, how can we say that language need serve a purpose which is solely one of necessity and correctness? Although we can disgress and agree that language is a necessity, surely we humans* cannot assume that all communication need be (used) out of necessity, since much of our time we spend hypothesizing, doubting or simply socialising and gossiping.

* This distinction of ‘humans’ I account for on the basis that it is presumed that apes don’t communicate on a verbal level for such things. Or am I being redundant?

Put another way, if you eliminated all the words which Nordquist considers ‘weak’ language, then are you not also complicating things. It means that in an avoidance of syntactic pleonasm you are using complex elipsis (and possibly altering the natural isochrony of English in the process).

One other point: Whence breaking the ‘rules’ of grammar and syntax, or else reimplementing so-called archaic words, phrases or syntax, or good knows what else, might the speaker not be, simply, reflecting life’s paradox, or the unexplainable and mystifying we so much avoid mentioning in today’s ‘progressive’ society?  Or might it not have occurred to you that the author is alluding to something, not of a cyclical, recurring nature, freshly progressive and individual despite his using a common expression which he thought was en vogue.

Let me close now with a quote I borrow from the ‘Uncyclopedia’:

Redundancy is the unnecessary use of either needless, tautological, pleonastic, superfluous or unnecessary text, by which one repeats, in duplication, the same, identical, aforesaid things over and over and over and over and over again, beyond what would be needed or required to explain, or make comprehensible, the intended or signified meaning of that which one wishes to convey. These things can be and most likely will be referred to as being redundant. Usually, it is often common in redundancy to repeat, sometimes with different phrasing or words, the same idea or reasoning, thus restating one’s thoughts, sometimes paraphrasing oneself and effectively saying the same thing twice, or double, or thrice, or three times, or triply so, or a small handful of times, or any number of excessive, unnecessary restatements greater than zero (none).

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About clasgtr

Ever have an idea or gut feeling, which you feel may have been mediated, for which there is no proof yet you feel nevertheless is valid and important enough to share? I put these down on blog to rid myself of them - it is a question of freedom of speech, and freedom of thought, and freedom from religious persecution. If anyone should feel offended, please be free to leave my blog.
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One Response to Pleonasms

  1. Pingback: Penultimacy (an essay) | Thoughts, Intuition, Questions

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