In writing, as in conversation, an economical use of words is not always what we want – Bergen Evans
Redundancy has a poor reputation in writing and editing. Its modern linguistic sense – which I think derives from information theory – has to do with predictability, but it is more generally associated with needless repetition or wordiness, and is therefore often automatically considered a failing in prose. This, however, is only part of the story.
Certainly there are pointless pleonasms like future plans, necessary requirement, in close proximity to, collaborate together, and 9 a.m. in the morning, which can bug readers and signal carelessness in writers, while phrases like sudden explosion and crept quietly gain nothing from their modifying adjectives and adverbs. Acronymic doublings like ATM machine and HIV virus attract endless criticism, and you won’t find me defending due to the fact that over because. Speaking of ATMs, is there a subtlety I’m missing in the instruction “Please Prepay in Advance”?
Yet despite what you might infer from some writing guides, redundancy is not inherently problematic. It’s a natural part of our speech and grammar, and can help in the transmission of a message by compensating for interference or incomplete attention. MWDEU offers an illuminating example from Todd & Hancock (1986): “those two dogs”, in which plurality is marked three times in three words. This shows how redundancy is built into the very structure of language. According to Terrence Deacon,
the best way to compensate for noise or error-proneness in communication is redundancy. We tend to repeat things, spell out important words, say the same thing in different ways, or add gestures and exaggerated tonality and volume in order to overcome the vicissitudes imposed by noisy rooms, distractions, inept listeners, or otherwise difficult-to-convey messages. Redundancy is implicitly built into language structure as well. Highly predictable phonetic elements, grammatical markers that all must agree within a sentence, and predictable word-order constraints can help one anticipate what is coming. (The Symbolic Species, 1997)
English has many redundant lexical pairs, such as first and foremost, and so on and so forth, and each and every. Joseph M. Williams dates this phenomenon to the time the language began to borrow liberally from Latin and French. “Because the borrowed word usually sounded a bit more learned than the familiar native one,” he observes, “early writers would use both.”
Perhaps the persistence of these set phrases testifies to our love of rhythmic and alliterative couplets. Such characteristics may, in turn, help memory and learning. We need not take Strunk and White’s authoritarian “Omit needless words” too much to heart, nor Orwell’s equally severe “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words”. In The Columbia Guide to Standard American English, Kenneth G. Wilson writes, more generously:
as every preacher and teacher knows, it is often pedagogically sound to “tell ’em first what you’re gonna tell ’em, then tell ’em, and finally tell ’em what you’ve told ’em.” Sometimes repetition – redundancy – is a good way to ensure effectiveness.
Repetition is a key part of oral storytelling traditions, and lives on especially in children’s books. Maybe its rhetorical status suffered as a result of our industrial ideals of efficiency and economy. It can still be used deliberately to emphasise an idea, convey a certain nuance, or achieve some prosodic effect. For example, reducing the tautological “there’s dollars there, dollars and bucks and nuggets in the ground”* to a concise “there’s wealth there” would drain it of colour and life.
In Irish English, redundancy is an abundant feature. Many people here are incurably fond of roundabout locutions, be it in casual conversation or as a literary device. “Are you going out?” goes the question, to which the reply might be not a curt “No” but a singsong “Well indeed now and I am not.” P. W. Joyce dedicated an entire chapter of English As We Speak It In Ireland to exaggeration and redundancy.
To recap: We can think of redundancy in language in two ways: a technical kind that is essential to language, and a more general kind that can require editing, but doesn’t necessarily. Rather than assume that wordy redundancy should always be eliminated, language users can judge its effect on communication in a given context. Sometimes even in formal writing, there’s no harm in a delay or detour if it makes the message more meaningful or memorable.
Update: Gabe Doyle at Motivated Grammar has written a useful post on redundancy, paying particular reference to the reason why vs. the reason that. He writes: “Adding redundant information is the rational thing to do if you expect the noise levels to be high enough that some information will be lost, and in almost every linguistic situation, that’s the case.”
* From MacCruiskeen’s description of the U.S.A. in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman.