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Pleonasm (//, from Greek πλεονασμός pleonasmos from πλέον pleon "more, too much") is the use of more words or parts of words than is necessary for clear expression: examples are black darkness, or burning fire. Such redundancy is, by traditional rhetorical criteria, a manifestation of tautology.
- 1 Pleonastic usage
- 2 Types
- 3 Semantic pleonasm and context
- 4 See also
- 5 References
- 6 Bibliography
- 7 External links
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.
Some pleonastic phrases are part of a language's idiom, like "tuna fish"[disputed ] and "safe haven" 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.
When expressing possibility, English speakers often use potentially pleonastic expressions such as: It may be possible or maybe it's possible, where both terms (verb may/adverb maybe and adjective possible) have the same meaning under certain constructions. Many speakers of English use such expressions for possibility in general, such that most instances of such expressions by those speakers are in fact pleonastic. Others, however, use this expression only to indicate a distinction between ontological possibility and epistemic possibility, as in "Both the ontological possibility of X under current conditions and the ontological impossibility of X under current conditions are epistemically possible" (in logical terms, "I am not aware of any facts inconsistent with the truth of proposition X, but I am likewise not aware of any facts inconsistent with the truth of the negation of X"). The habitual use of the double construction to indicate possibility per se is far less widespread among speakers of most other languages (except in Spanish; see examples); rather, almost all speakers of those languages use one term in a single expression:
- French: Il est possible or il peut arriver.
- Romanian: Este posibil or se poate întâmpla.
- Typical Spanish pleonasms
- Voy a subir arriba - I am going to go up upstairs, "arriba" not being necessary.
- Entra para dentro - Go in inside, "para dentro" not being necessary.
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 (e.g. "enter into").
Professional and scholarly use
Some pleonastic phrases, when used in professional or scholarly writing, may reflect a standardized usage that has evolved or a meaning familiar to specialists but not necessarily to those outside that discipline. Such examples as "null and void", "terms and conditions", "each and all" are legal doublets that are part of legally operative language that is often drafted into legal documents. A classic example of such usage was that by the Lord Chancellor at the time (1864), Lord Westbury, in the English case of ex parte Gorely, when he described a phrase in an Act as "redundant and pleonastic". 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 verbiage. This is especially so in disciplines where imprecision may introduce ambiguities (such as the natural sciences).
In addition, pleonasms can serve purposes external to meaning. For example, a speaker who is too terse is often interpreted as lacking ease or grace, because, in oral and sign 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; superfluous 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.
- "This was the most unkindest cut of all." —William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (Act 3, Scene 2,183).
- "Beyond the garage were some decorative trees trimmed as carefully as poodle dogs." —Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep.
- "Let me tell you this, when social workers offer you, free, gratis and for nothing, something to hinder you from swooning, which with them is an obsession, it is useless to recoil ..." —Samuel Beckett, Molloy.
||This section possibly contains original research. (September 2010)|
There are two kinds of pleonasm: syntactic pleonasm and semantic pleonasm.
- "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 pleonastic in this case. By contrast, when a sentence is in spoken form and the verb involved is one of assertion, the use of that makes clear that the present speaker is making an indirect rather than a direct quotation, such that he is not imputing particular words to the person he describes as having made an assertion; the demonstrative adjective that also does not fit such an example. Also, some writers may use "that" for technical clarity reasons. In some languages, such as French, the word is not optional and should therefore not be considered pleonastic.
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 languages, 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 Korean, Japanese, Hungarian, Latin, Portuguese, Scandinavian languages some Slavic languages, and the Lao language.
In contrast, formal English requires an overt subject in each clause. A sentence may not need a subject to have valid meaning, but to satisfy the syntactic requirement for an explicit subject a pleonastic (or dummy) pronoun is used; only the first sentence in the following pair is acceptable English:
- "It rains."
In this example the pleonastic "it" fills the subject function, however it does not contribute any meaning to the sentence. The second sentence, which omits the pleonastic it is marked as ungrammatical although no meaning is lost by the omission. Elements such as "it", or "there" serving as empty subject markers are also called (syntactic) expletives, and also dummy pronouns.
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?".
There are examples of the pleonastic, or dummy, negative in English, such as the construction, heard in the New England region of the United States, in which the phrase "So don't I" is intended to have the same positive meaning as "So do I."
When Robert South said, "It is a pleonasam [sic], 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 many 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").
Types of syntactic pleonasm
- Overinflection: Many languages with inflection, as a result of convention, tend to inflect more words in a given phrase than actually needed in order to express a single grammatical property. Take for example the German, Die alten Frauen sprechen. Even though the first two words in the phrase (being the definite article and then a qualifier in this case), let us know right away that the grammatical number of the noun phrase is plural, the German language still dictates that the attributive adjective, the noun which is our subject, and the verb undertaken by our subject all must also express and agree in grammatical number. Not all languages are quite as redundant however, and will in fact omit inflection for number when there is an obvious numerical marker, as is the case with Hungarian, which does have a plural proper, but would express two flowers as two flowerØ. (The same is the case in Welsh, where numerical markers precede singular nouns.) The main contrast between Hungarian and other tongues such as German or even English (to a lesser extent), is that in either of the latter, expressing plurality when already evident is not optional, but mandatory; making the neglect of these rules result in an ungrammatical sentence. As well as for number, our aforementioned German phrase overinflects for both grammatical gender and grammatical case.
- Multiple Negation: In some languages, repeated negation may be used for emphasis, as in the English sentence, "There ain't nothing wrong with that." While a literal interpretation of this sentence would be "There is not nothing wrong with that," i.e. "There is something wrong with that," the intended meaning is in fact the opposite: "There is nothing wrong with that" or "There isn't anything wrong with that." The repeated negation is used pleonastically for emphasis. However, this is not always the case. In the sentence "I don't not like it," the repeated negative may be used to convey ambivalence ("I neither like nor dislike it") or even affirmation ("I do like it"). (Rhetorically, this becomes the device of litotes; it can be difficult to distinguish litotes from pleonastic double negation, a feature which may be used for ironic effect.) Although the use of "double negatives" for emphatic purposes is sometimes discouraged in standard English, it is mandatory in other languages like Spanish or French. For example, the Spanish phrase "No es nada" (It's nothing) contains both a negated verb ("no es") and the negative form of anything/nothing ("nada").
- Multiple Affirmation: In English, repeated affirmation can be used to add emphasis to an affirmative statement, just as repeated negation can add emphasis to a negative one. When we say something along the lines of, I do love you, with a stronger intonation on the do, we are putting double affirmation into use. This is because all languages, by default, automatically express their sentences in the affirmative and must then alter the sentence in one way or another to express the opposite. Therefore, the sentence I love you is already affirmative, and adding the extra do only adds emphasis and does not change the meaning of the statement.
- Double Possession: The double genitive of English, which we can see in a phrase like a friend of mine, although seemingly pleonastic, and therefore has been stigmatized, has a long history of use by careful writers and has been analyzed as either a partitive genitive or an appositive genitive.
- Multiple Quality Gradation: In English, different degrees of comparison (comparatives and superlatives) are created through a morphological change to an adjective (e.g. "prettier", "fastest") or a syntactic construction (e.g. "more complex", "most impressive"). It is thus possible to combine both forms for additional emphasis: "more bigger" or "bestest". This may be considered ungrammatical, but is common in informal speech for some English speakers. "The most unkindest cut of all" is from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Musical notation has a repeated Italian superlative in fortississimo and pianississimo.
- Not all uses of constructions such as "more bigger" are pleonastic, however. Some speakers who use such utterances do so in an attempt, albeit a grammatically unconventional one, to create a non-pleonastic construction: A person who says "X is more bigger than Y" may, in the context of a conversation featuring a previous comparison of some object Z with Y, mean "The degree by which X exceeds Y in size is greater than the degree by which Z exceeds Y in size." This usage amounts to the treatment of "bigger than Y" as a single grammatical unit, namely an adjective itself admitting of degrees, such that "X is more bigger than Y" is equivalent to "X is more bigger-than-Y than Z is." Another common way to express this is: "X is even bigger than Z."
Semantic pleonasm is a question more of style and usage than of 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 pleonasm was famously attacked by American comedian George Carlin, but is not truly redundant; a device that increases the temperature of cold water to room temperature would also be a water heater, although it did not heat hot water.)
- 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 no man put asunder."
- "He raised up his hands in a gesture of surrender."
- "Where are you at?"
- "located" or similar before a preposition: the preposition contains the idea of locatedness and does not need a servant.
- "the actual house itself" for "the house", and similar: unnecessary re-specifiers.
- "Actual fact": fact.
- "On a daily basis": daily.
- "On a --ly basis" or "on a -- basis": --ly.
- "This particular item": this item.
- "Different" or "separate" after numbers: for example:
- "4 different species" are merely "4 species", as two non-different species are together one same species.
- "9 separate cars": cars are always separate.
- (But in e.g. "A discount if you buy ten different items together here", "different" has meaning, because e.g. if the ten items include two packets of frozen peas, those ten items are not all different.)
An expression like "tuna fish", however, might elicit one of many possible responses, such as:
- It will simply be accepted as synonymous with "tuna".
- It will be perceived as redundant (and thus perhaps silly, illogical, ignorant, inefficient, dialectal, odd, and/or intentionally humorous).
- 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. Further, "tuna fish" is sometimes used to refer to the flesh of the animal as opposed to the animal itself (similar to the distinction between beef and cattle).
- It will be perceived as a verbal clarification, since the word "tuna" is quite short, and may, for example, be misheard as "tune" followed by an aspiration, or (in dialects that drop the final -r sound) as "tuner".
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.
Similar situations are:
- "Ink pen" instead of merely "pen" in the southern United States, where "pen" and "pin" are pronounced similarly.
- "Extra accessories" which must be ordered separately for a new camera, as distinct from the accessories provided with the camera as sold.
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; and 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 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 additional negative ir- is interpreted by some as logically reversing 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.)
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.
But "It's déjà vu all over again." could mean that there was earlier another déjà vu of the same event or idea, which has now arisen for a third time.
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 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.
- "The sound of the loud music drowned out the sound of the burglary."
- "The loud music drowned out the sound of the burglary."
- "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, unless the burglary was relatively quiet (this is not a trivial issue, as it may affect the legal culpability of the person who played the music); the word "loud" may imply that the music should have been played quietly if at all. 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.
Redundancies sometimes take the form of foreign words whose meaning is repeated in the context:
- "We went to the 'El Restaurante' restaurant."
- "The La Brea tar pits are fascinating."
- "Roast beef served with au jus sauce."
- "Please R.S.V.P."
- "The Schwarzwald Forest is deep and dark."
- "The Drakensberg Mountains are in South Africa."
- LibreOffice office suite.
These sentences use phrases which mean, respectively, "the the restaurant restaurant", "the the tar tar", and both "with with" and "sauce sauce". 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). A supposed extreme example is Torpenhow Hill in Cumbria, if etymologized as meaning "hill" in the language of each of the cultures that have lived in the area during recorded history, 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." So actually it says: "I forgot my Personal Identification Number number for the Automated Teller Machine machine."
- "I upgraded the RAM memory of my computer."
- "She is infected with the HIV virus."
- "I have installed a CMS system on my server."
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", "Content Management System system". (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:
- "mutatis mutandis" = "with change made to what needs to be changed" (an ablative absolute construction)
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:
- "...[T]he only thing we have to fear is fear itself."—Franklin D. Roosevelt, "First Inaugural Address", March 1933.
- "With eager feeding[,] food doth choke the feeder."—William Shakespeare, Richard II (play), II, i, 37.
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 word, and not an acronym suggesting the pleonastic word sequence "apparatus gear". (Most do not even know that it is an acronym, and do not spell it SCUBA or S.C.U.B.A. See radar and laser for similar examples.)
- Cognate object
- Double negative
- Dummy pronoun
- Elegant variation
- Error correcting code
- Figure of speech
- Fowler's Modern English Usage
- Irish bull
- List of plain English words and phrases
- List of tautological place names
- Politics and the English Language (George Orwell)
- Redundancy (linguistics)
- Tautology (rhetoric)
- Ex p Gorely, (1864) 4 De G L & S 477.
- Partridge, Eric (1995). Usage and Abusage: A Guide to Good English. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-03761-4.
- Norman Swartz & Raymond Bradley (1979). Possible Worlds: an introduction to Logic and its Philosophy.
- Haegeman, L. (1991). Introduction to Government and Binding Theory. Blackwell Publishing. pp 62.
- Horn, Laurence R. Universals of Human Language, Volume I, edited by Joseph H. Greenberg, p. 176
- Wood, Jim P. (2008) “So-inversion as Polarity Focus,” in Michael Grosvald and Dianne Soares (eds.) Proceedings of the 38th Western Conference on Linguistics. Fresno, CA: University of California. Pages 304-317
- Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy (New Accents), p. 38 ISBN 0-415-28129-6
- McWhorter, John C. Doing Our Own Thing, p. 19. ISBN 1-59240-084-1
- Merriam-Webster definition for Tuna(1)
- Merriam-Webster definition for Tuna(2)
- Smyth, Herbert Weir (1920). Greek Grammar. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. pp. 681–682. ISBN 0-674-36250-0.
- The dictionary definition of pleonasm at Wiktionary