Omit needless criticisms of redundancy

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.

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Albert Anker: Grandfather Tells a Story, 1884

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.”

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* From MacCruiskeen’s description of the U.S.A. in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman.

[image source]

21 Responses to Omit needless criticisms of redundancy

  1. Usually I try to avoid redundancy. However, I have found instances where I kept it the story because I felt that it was needed. I did so against the advice of many. Like you mentioned, if we pay attention to natural speech there is redundancy all the time. Now your post confirms that at times redundancy is okay. Thanks!

  2. John Cowan says:

    By the way, I’m told there is a chair in the Department of Redundancy Department whose holder bears the sonorous title of “Professor of Redundancy Professor of the Department of Redundancy Department Professor”.

    As for future plans, there are also past plans, such as the U.S. plans for invading Japan in 1946-47. Planning for the future would indeed be redundant in the bad sense.

    Then there’s William Burroughs, one of whose characters speaks of “coprophagy: the redundant vice.”

  3. Michele says:

    I write a lot of speeches for business executives. When, as often happens, the subject is somewhat important but incredibly uninteresting, saying the same thing in various ways — through stories, metaphors and flat-out redundancy — is sometimes the only way to get the point across. Weep for me.

  4. Stan says:

    Haley: You’re welcome, and thanks for your comment. It seems you’ve encountered the bias against redundancy, which is very prevalent and in some crucial ways misconceived. Attentive writers and readers know that there’s more to it than meets the eye.

    John: Yes, there are past plans; I meant future plans when the context made its redundancy obvious (as it generally would), but I should perhaps have stuck to clear-cut examples. Thanks for the laugh over the professor’s title.

    Michele: Speeches accommodate redundancy more naturally than written prose, but even so, I’m heartened that you use it consciously as a communicative tool. If you don’t mind, I’ll defer weeping for now: speech-writing for business executives sounds more interesting than you seem to be suggesting, but then other people’s work normally does.

  5. MikeH says:

    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.

    This reminds me of how we were taught German adjective endings, although the reverse of this was used as the rule, i.e. that the grammatical information (gender, number etc.) only needed to be conveyed by either the article or the attributive adjective. For example in “der grosse Mann” (masculaine singular nominative) the article (der) carries the information so “rot” doesn’t have to but in “mit grossen Männern” there is no article so the adjective becomes the carrier of the information. Needless to say it’s not a failsafe way of learning German case endings.

  6. Stan says:

    Thanks for that insight, Mike. I remember struggling a bit with German adjective endings in school, until eventually I got a decent grip on them, albeit short-term. Rote learning and intuition take you only so far.

  7. JT Sheerin says:

    Hello Stan,
    It’s good to see the legendary MacCruiskeen get an airing. Redundancy and circumlocution definitely have their place in some writing. But if it’s in, say, a news article or a business proposal, I find it amateur. I recently posted on tautology (see link below), I hope you find my counter-argument persuasive. For as Abraham Lincoln once said in a book review: “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.” http://www.write-well.co.uk/?p=8

  8. wisewebwoman says:

    “Would you like a cup of tea, Daddy?” said my mother to my grandfather.
    “Ah now, Marie, I wouldn’t say no to a cup of tea by a long shot. No, not at all.”
    How emptier my memory if “yes, please” had been the response.
    XO
    WWW

  9. Stan says:

    Hello JT, and thanks for your visit and link. I think we’re in broad agreement: the kind of tautology you decry has no place in journalism or business writing. I wouldn’t call it a disease, though, and picking at song lyrics is a Sisyphean undertaking I’m inclined to avoid.

    WWW: I love that! It’s just the sort of happily rambling response I had in mind, and it illustrates one of my points beautifully.

  10. Liam Horan says:

    Well done Stan, excellent piece. You could, of course, reduce this piece ‘down’ to a shorter read, or perhaps even head ‘up’ a commission to form not just a consensus, but a ‘general’ consensus on this topic. I await your reply, and, indeed, your response:)

  11. Stan says:

    Thanks, Liam, and nicely done! I could indeed and for sure reduce it down to the true facts, taking care to leave out all inessential and superfluous verbiage in order to arrive ultimately at an end result of increased brevity of expression. But I like having room to manoeuvre.

  12. There is absolutely, definitely and incontrovertibly a place for using redundant words. It may not be in a technical document but Brian O’Nolan would have been a bland writer without liberal doses of it!

  13. Helen says:

    Well done Stan, or to paraphrase the Galway Bay FM presenter whom I heard last week: “Congrats….You correctly got it right”

  14. Stan says:

    Jams: Hear hear! I don’t think anyone could reasonably disagree, but simplistic advice like Strunk and White’s is so popular that it’s no harm to remind ourselves of its limits.

    Helen: That redundancy makes me wonder what sort of scenarios would have people incorrectly getting it right, and so on.

  15. CathyBy says:

    Working in IT the term “necessary requirements” is an essential term. The analyst gathers the requirements for a new system from its potential future users and then weeds out the inessential until he/she arrives at the necessary requirements – the ones that a working system in any potential world must have. It’s almost a philosophical distinction (especially to the person who really wants a graphic editor as part of their billing system…)

  16. Stan says:

    Cathy: Ouch! I see how the term would become fixed, and even be considered useful in such a setting, but I can’t help feeling sorry for the “inessential requirements” (if that’s what they’re called). It’s just as well they can’t suffer identity crises.

  17. John Cowan says:

    The reason that necessary requirements isn’t actually redundant is that requirement has two living senses, given in the OED as 3a and 3b: “something which is required or needed; a want, need” and “something called for or demanded; a condition which must be complied with”; roughly, a requirement may either be something that’s actually required, or something that someone says is required. The latter sense is in play here, and the job of CathyBy’s analyst is to distinguish from the vast list of requirements (3b) those which actually are requirements (3a).

  18. Stan says:

    Thanks, John. That helps both to clarify the distinction between necessary requirements and unnecessary ones, and to underline the awkwardness of this distinction. The second sense (3b) echoes the original meaning of require, which was closer to request.

  19. […] Redundancy doesn’t make something ungrammatical or unacceptable. Stan Carey points out that English is threaded through with redundancy, so it’s clear that redundancy isn’t inherently a bad thing. In fact, given that we’re communicating with people who might not catch the full message (or be paying full attention), redundancy is often a logical thing to add to your language. […]

  20. […] links: Omit needless criticisms of redundancy Jessica Love on quotative like Like this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  21. […] a step further than Pullum and say that even much of what he tags as “mostly harmless” has an insidious effect in producing the kind of writing no one really wants to read. The Elements of Style won’t […]

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