For Free and Other Pleonastic Expressions

By Maeve Maddox

pleonasm: The use of more words in a sentence or clause than are necessary to express the meaning

Pleonastic expressions are common in conversation. We all use turns of phrase in which we repeat ourselves: “the books were few in number,” “We made advance dinner reservations,” “I know with positive certainty.”

few: adjective. amounting to a small number.
reservation: noun. an act of engaging a seat, room, place, ticket, vehicle, etc., in advance;
positive: adjective. expressed without qualification; certain.

In casual conversation, speakers may be forgiven these verbal tics, but advertisers and journalists can be expected to aim to minimize redundancy in their copy.

Here are some examples from the web:

Twenty-One Cool Products And Services You Can Get For Free

“An unexpected surprise” (very popular headline for hotel reviews)

The Borden twist is that Borden and Fallon are a pair of identical twins who take turns as each persona.

Las Vegas has its share of annoying pests.

Future prospects remain bright for agricultural graduates

Do you want to give your child everything he needs to succeed as a baseball player? Good! — Teach them the basic fundamentals when they are small.

What is the current consensus of opinion concerning the relationship of REM sleep to emotional stability?

Poorer soils are usually paler brown in color

the green color shows a few raindrops, but the red color indicates very intense rain.

County Schools’ Report Card Scores Show Good Improvement

for free: If something is “free,” it is “given out of generosity and not in return for something else.” The formation “for free” has probably developed by analogy with “for nothing,” One can get “something for nothing,” A “free gift” is also pleonastic; the most common meaning of gift is “something given without charge,” i.e., “free.” It is enough for advertisers to announce that something is available free: “Buy a computer and get a printer free.”

unexpected surprise: a surprise is an unexpected occurrence or event.

pair of identical twins: Two children or young brought forth at one birth are twins. A pair is “a couple; a set of two.” It’s enough to say that the men are “identical twins.”

annoying pests: In the figurative sense, a pest is “an annoying person or thing.”

future prospects: The word prospects in this context refers to future occasions or events.

basic fundamental: Fundamental means “serving as the foundation or base on which something is built.” The adjective basic means “Of, pertaining to, or forming a base; fundamental.”

consensus of opinion: The word consensus is enough. It means “Agreement in opinion.”

brown in color, green color, red color: A color is a hue or tint. Brown, green, and red are colors. It is rarely necessary to say so when describing a weather map or other depiction in color. It’s enough to say, “The red indicates intense rain.”

good improvement: The word improvement includes the idea of “good.” There’s no such thing as “bad improvement.” The word can be modified in terms of degree. For example, “slight improvement,” and “minor improvement.”

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25 Responses to “For Free and Other Pleonastic Expressions”

  • ApK

    An interesting thing to be a aware of (and a new word for my vocabulary: pleonasm…who knew…).
    But, some of those pleonasm simply flow better than their terser versions, and isn’t there some legitimate case to made for emphasis through repetition?

  • Matt Gaffney

    I agree that there’s always room for a new word in every educated person’s vocabulary, yet the term “pleonastic” is so technical that its use in ordinary conversation or in informal writing would probably convey pretentiousness to a listener or reader. Use “superfluous” and/or “redundant” (they’re not quite synonyms). Also, I was surprised that the writer did not include two quite common spoken and written examples in her list: “past experience” and “past history.” Whenever I hear either expression, I’m strongly tempted to ask “as opposed to ‘future experience’ or ‘future history’?”

  • ApK

    Reminds me of a Mitch Hedberg bit:
    “A friend said ‘Look at this picture of me from when I was younger.’
    I said ‘Dude, ALL pictures of you are from when you were younger. If you have a picture of you from when you were older, I want to see that camera.”

  • thebluebird11

    @ApK: LMAO I hope I can remember that comeback!
    @Matt: Spot on. That is my contention because in all my medical reports people (except me) say “past [whatever] history.” If it’s history, it happened in the past. And if it’s past, it’s history. Out with the “past.” Nevertheless, the word “experience” is different. It can mean knowledge or skills you have accrued (in the past, duh) and can bring to the table now, OR, it can just mean a particular instance or event that provided–or WILL provide–you with some new knowledge or skill (as in, “Wow, that will be a great experience!”) So you can be speaking hypothetically or speaking about the potential for a future experience.

  • Cesar

    Unfortunately, not all twins are identical. Some twins are fraternal, born at the same time but not from the same egg, and thus don’t look identical; but they’re still called twins. That is why the distinction is sometimes necessary, though you’d expect “identical” to be implied when you simply say “twins”.

  • Nick

    In “Twenty-One Cool Products And Services You Can Get For Free”, how is the reader to know these are free without stating the fact?

  • Fred

    My favorite is: “A pair of dice.” (when used to describe two die – or dice).
    Technically, that would be “four.”
    One is a die. Two are dice. So, a pair of dice would be four.

  • thebluebird11

    @Cesar: Actually it is not unfortunate that not all twins are identical; it’s just sort of the way these things roll. Anyway…the point is really to leave out the word “pair.” It’s sufficient to say “twins,” because that means two offspring born from the same mother at the same time (same gestation). They can be identical or fraternal twins, but they are twins nonetheless, not “a pair of twins.” You can say “a set of twins,” which is an expression that is helpful in cases where someone has had more than one multiple birth, by which I mean at least two sets of twins (which would be 4 kids).

  • Lori

    Though I didn’t know the pleonasm (I love learning new words!), I see it happen all the time when I’m editing. It drives me crazy! One of my biggest pet peeves is “refer back to” rather than just “refer to,” as in “I must refer back to my notes for the correct numbers.” Ugh!

  • Lori

    *didn’t know the word pleonasm*

  • Danny

    @Fred: A pair of dice means two dice. “Dice” means more than one die.

    @Maeve: It is my opinion that many times we should relax our writing just a wee bit to reflect common usage. Some of the “corrections” seem stilted. But that is an opinion. (And that opinion notwithstanding, I do have my own prescriptivist tendencies.)

  • Matt Gaffney

    @thebluebird11: While “experience” is different than “history,” the phrase “past experience” is no different than “past history.” One can speak of a “future experience” in anticipation of it, but “past experience,” in whatever context it appears, always occurred in the past, so “past” in that phrase is silly.

    @Cesar: the issue is that it’s unnecessary to use the term “pair of identical twins.” The unnecessary word is “pair,” not “identical.” It would be just as bad to say “pair of fraternal twins.” “Twins” gets the idea across, and both “identical” and “fraternal” merely describe the twins more particularly. What about triplets? Can a woman birth three babies, two of which are identical twins with the third being a fraternal twin to both of the identical twins, e.g., two identical twin boys and another boy (or girl) who’s a fraternal twin of the identicals? I’m sure it’s possible, but I can’t imagine it occurs often.

    @Danny: you’re right. “Dice” merely means more than one die. A pair is two, and six dice is indeed six. Makes sense, but not at first blush.

    Also, “common usage” might make one seem to blend in better with our less punctilious colleagues, but it’s a perilous path to follow. The next thing you know, you’ll start saying INsurance rather than inSURance, real-uh-tur rather than real-tur, ath-uh-lete rather than ath-lete, etc. I think it’s better to be a passive role model; set a good example: differentiate between “lie” and “lay”, etc., and you might help prolong the existence of decent English by about 20 seconds!

  • thebluebird11

    @Matt: True, I would not say “In my past experience…” and certainly if you have experienced anything, or have experience in something, that is past. Also agreed on the passive role model thing. No point starting a war by correcting people, but no point waving a white flag either, if you know you’re right.
    And yes, with multiple gestations you can have a mix, as you mentioned the case of triplets with 2 being identical twins and the third being fraternal. I am sure that this is a rare occurrence. These days with all the IVF, all the babies are fraternal, but I am sure it’s possible that one fertilized egg could split into two (or more) and go on to be identical sibs.

  • venqax

    “its use in ordinary conversation or in informal writing would probably convey pretentiousness”. Yesterday’s lesson would ask for *pretention*. How timely!

    @Cesar: the issue is that it’s unnecessary to use the term “pair of identical twins.” The unnecessary word is “pair,” not “identical.” It would be just as bad to say “pair of fraternal twins.” Ditto.

    @Fred: A pair of dice means two dice. “Dice” means more than one die. Another ditto (not a double ditto, that would be different). A *pair of dice* is perfectly correct, just like a pair of thingS plural in any case. Four dice would be a pair of pairs of dice. One die is a part of a pair of dice which is subtly different from a piece of paradise.

  • Graeme Creed

    Great post !!!!!

    Would you like to explain the difference between a tautology and pleonasm in a future post.

    Is “2am in the morning” a tautology or pleonasm?

  • Matt Gaffney

    @venqax: How in God’s name were you able to conjure up italics in your comments? What have I overlooked? Is bolding also available? I’ve been lumbered with quotation marks while all the time font enhancements were available? What’s the secret? Thanks.

  • Laura

    I have always considered phrases like “proven fact” or “advance reservations” as redundant….but maybe they are truly pleonastic!

  • ApK

    Laura, According to the definition Maeve gave, a pleonasm is a specific kind of redundancy in a sentence. Lots of things can be redundant that have nothing to do with words in a sentence. Like people’s jobs, etc…..That is, a pleonasm is a redundancy, but not all redundancies are pleonasms.

    Graeme, interesting on “tautology” though. I am more familiar with “tautology” in the broader sense of rhetoric or logic, but in the grammatical sense, if I had to guess, I’d guess a pleonasm would be a tautolog when it makes a statement or an assertion that something is so. It would be a pleonasm even if it was questioning or saying something was not so. That is, I think tautologies are pleonasm but not all pleonasms are tautologies.
    🙂 But I’m just guessing.

  • venqax

    @Matt Gaffney: You use the system (I hope that translates). Precede the comment you want to italicize with a lower case i between less-than and greater than symbols . Then follow your comment with a forward-slash / and then an i also enclosed with the . For bold and underline you do the same with a lower case b or u respectively. In my case you’ll notice it doesn’t quite work right all the time, but I think that is a problem with my system, not the method. There is a name for these command but I can’t recall it (hypertext something or other maybe?). Problem is with no edit function on here, you can’t tell if what you’ve written is correct until you actually post it– and then it’s too late!

  • venqax

    I see the less-than and greater-than symbols themselves didn’t translate. My first sentence was written, “You use the (less-than symbol then greater-than symbol) system.” Instead we just got, “You use the system”. The third sentence should end with, “..also enclosed with the (less-than symbol and greater-than symbols)”. I hope it’s clear from what I wrote.

    So written ou: LTsymbol i GT symbol at the front and LTsymbol slash i GTsymbol at the end.

  • venqax

    One that is a term of art in social science but has always bugged me is “separate out”. As opposed to separate in or separate apart or separate separately, I don’t know. But I know that to do something to As that are mixed in with Bs and Cs, you have to separate out the As. Ugh…writing that makes my fingertips feel dirty.

  • thebluebird11

    LTsymbol i GT symbol at the front and LTsymbol slash i GTsymbol at the end.
    this is just a test of venqax’s post for making italics /
    I hope it works…here goes…(hits “submit comment”)….

  • thebluebird11

    Hmph. Not quite what I intended LOL

  • venqax

    Looks pretty good to me, bluebird. I’m not sure where you meant for the italics to end. Just to reiterate it’s LT sign slash i GT sign. The foward slash makes it the command to “close” the italics, bold, underline, etc.

  • Stuart Showalter

    I have fun calling big box hardware stores and asking for a “cold-water heater.” I usually get an appropriate response asking if I am wanting a whole house water heater. Sometimes I get told that “We have hot water heaters in plumbing.” I say, “No thanks. If I had hot water I wouldn’t need to heat it.”

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