Let the Word Do the Work

By Maeve Maddox

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When language-mutilator Yogi Berra said that something was “like ‘deja vu’ all over again,” everybody laughed. Lately I get the feeling that some people who say it don’t know it’s a joke.

Yogi’s “belts and suspenders” approach to words seems to be on the increase. We’ve all seen ads that offer “a free gift.” Sometimes it’s “an absolutely free gift.” It’s as if people don’t trust a word to mean what it means.

Some recent examples from the media include: “adequate enough,” “a navy sailor,” “an army soldier,” “coupled together with,” and “the maroon-colored Jaguar.”

Sometimes explanatory constructions are necessary in certain contexts. One can refer to a Mafia “soldier,” for example, but if the context is the evening news about the Iraq war, a listener can be trusted to understand the word without tacking on “army.”

Besides sounding foolish, the practice of bolstering a word with a a word that replicates its meaning weakens the expressiveness of the language.

Here are some redundant combinations I’ve heard or read lately in the media. The careful writer will avoid such nonsense.

  • return back
  • progress forward
  • forests of trees
  • other alternatives
  • continue on
  • evacuated out
  • regress back
  • penetrate through
  • speeding too fast
  • refinanced again
  • a human person
  • charred black
  • a baby nursery
  • reiterate again
  • fast forward ahead
  • socialize together
  • two twin towers
  • added bonus
  • end result
  • new innovation
  • very unique

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95 Responses to “Let the Word Do the Work”

  • Larry

    I venture to add that “Army soldier” and Navy sailor” at least in their use in news reporting, are not redundant. Each adds information, namely that the subject of the news is (was) not an officer.

    Here is my support: I have noticed that news having an Army officer as its subject almost always refers to the person as an “Army officer,” or “Army Lieutenant,” etc. In contrast, news having Army enlisted personnel as the subject almost always refers to the personnel as “soldiers.”

    Also, if a person states to you that he/she was “an Army soldier” it is almost certain that he/she was an enlisted person.

    The same goes for the Navy; how many times has anyone heard a Navy officer say that he/she is a “sailor?”

  • T E Mills

    At work people’s favorites are “already weighed up” and “already scanned”.

  • Teresa

    My father was a great sailor sailing all the great oceans and often times coming back with fish the fishermen left behind. No, my father wasn’t in the navy. He was a banker who enjoyed sailing the oceans during his vacation time.

    or

    We had our sailors stationed at every corner of our ocean’s borders when this world war broke out last night in our area of the world.

    These might be very bad examples but if someone were to say, our ocean’s borders are protected by sailors one might instantly think we are all going to die…

    But if you say, “don’t fret my pet all our ocean’s borders are being protect by Navy Sailors” then I would still worry but not nearly as bad as if someone just said sailors.

    Sorry would that be someone or somebody?

    English sucks. It is by far the worst one to learn out of them all.

  • Jenna Weidener

    Nigel Pennington’s example: “I have spelled it out for you twice now, let me reiterate again.”

    This can’t be acceptable. It’s poor. Iterate and reiterate mean the same thing, perhaps the latter suggesting the iteration already occurred.

    Thus, you’ve “spelled it out for me twice, you only need to reiterate.”

  • Alicia

    It seems that when people talk about redundancy in words (and try to justify it), they forget that context is important. For example: a Navy sailor. It’s redundant. If you’re talking about the Navy, “sailor” is sufficient. If the context is about some other type of sailor, then it would be redundant to constantly specify. Generally, words like “sailor” and “soldier” have certain understood meanings within the context.

    **It is only when you begin to talk about something that isn’t related to the previously understood meaning that you should specify.**

    Example: A book about plants which mentions a nursery will automatically be referring to a plant nursery, but it must specify a baby nursery if it begins suggesting a type of plant or flower that could be placed there.

  • Krishna

    A very nice compilation of avoidable phrases. I have always been avoiding such phrases, and used to get irritated when I come across such usages, for example, ‘return back’ retaliated back’ etc. But lately, I started ignoring them because some of the blog-posts that contain all types mistakes rank very high on Google SERPs. I think Google’s algorithms treat posts with more mistakes as ‘original content’. Look around some of the new blogs with PR 4 and more, and you may start thinking on these lines, especially after Google’s latest update of algorithms to rank down ‘content farms’, though Goggle did not use the same term.

  • venqax

    Alicia: Agree about navy sailor. While army soldier, AF airman and marine marine (?) are redundant, not all sailors are in the navy. In fact, the navy itself now officially uses the term “seaman” to make that very distinction. However, it is most often obvious from context whether the sailors in question are military or Gilligan.

    Capitol building is one that gets my attention. A capitol, with an O, IS a building.

    “‘Circle around’ the Capitol building” is compounding the issue, but maybe it’s an algebraic idea: 2 redundancies cancel out and make dundancy again.

  • J.B.

    “Visually see” bothers me, too. (Actually, I think it’s so silly it’s funny.)

  • Manpreet kaur

    redundancy in spoken language is a common occurance by many speakers these days…it is pertinant though that repetitions are highlighted and corrected. Here in Fiji schools i as a teacher of English have on numerous occasions noticed students using redundacy…. the fact remain if we are able to correct the speaker so that it is avoided…. the list of repetitions are endless…

  • The Ridger

    I would caution everyone to beware of such lists and the blanket prohibitions against using the terms in them. Far too often there are good reasons to use the so-called “redundant combination”, many of which have been pointed out by other commenters. For example, surely you aren’t recommending “I continued the road to Asheville” instead of “continued on”? “Continue” and “continue on” mean very different things.

    The advice should be to always be careful with what you write. Of course, that’s vague and harder to follow than “don’t use these phrases”.

  • Maeve

    TheRidger,
    Your example of the use of “continue on” in the sentence “I continued on the road to Asheville” misses the point being made against the redundant verb phrase “continue on.”

    In your example, the verb is “continue.” The “on” is a preposition introducing the phrase “on the road to Asheville.” With all respect, I don’t think that my recommendation against using the verb phrase “continue on” is invalidated by the fact that the verb “continue” may occur in a sentence containing a prepositional phrase beginning with “on.” In such a case, the two words are not part of the same phrase.

  • Katie

    Hey, I hear this too often from journalists who should know better: safe haven. D’oh!

  • Hugo

    There is one particular phrase that makes me rage every time I see or hear it (and this is very often). Most politicians here in Quebec/Canada use it frequently, and so do the media.

    “Our/my/his/etc. first priority”

    A priority is the thing/action/whatever that’s the most important to someone. If it’s your priority, then it IS the first, there is absolutely no doubt about it. Of course, I understand one can have a list of priorities, but if you talk about your single priority, it’s automatically the one that’s on the top of your list.

    Am I the only one who finds this horrible?

  • venqax

    The example of “evacuated out” is interesting. Not only is it redundant in the sense that something is not evacuated in, but most often it is the result of a misuse of the word “evacuate” entirely. E.g., “Forty people were evacuated out of the stadium” is wrong on two levels– the “out” is redundant AND the people were not evacuated at all (we hope). The stadium was.

  • Kevin Guite

    Extremely insightful for wannabe writers!

    Looking forward to further tips!

  • Rajesh Chaudhary

    I feel like the last one, “two twin tower” can be correct in some context. For example: it can have a meaning like two towers that are twin — meaning, there are in fact 4 towers, two in one place as twin and another two in another place in the neighborhood.

  • Keith

    I think some of yas are missing the point. Yes, an example could be found for most, if not all, of these that illustrates how it can actually make sense… but we’re talking about economy of language here, right? Maximizing impact?

    “Penetrate the darkness” hits harder than “penetrate through the darkness”… don’t you think?

  • Brian

    Why would “maroon-colored Jaguar,” be redundant? Surely the vehicle comes in a variety of colors?

  • venqax

    Because maroon IS a color. What else could that possibly mean? The maroon-sized Jaguar? The maroon-flavored Jaguar? The maroon Jaguar says all that needs be said.

    It would be similarly redundant to say, “The chocolate-flavored ice cream cone”. Altho, actually that could most often be not just redundant but downright wrong because, statistically speaking, it is more likely the ice cream that is chocolate, not the cone. My, how complex this becomes.

  • Kent Butler

    Whoever first used the idiotic expression “free gift” should be sentenced to 10 years of cleaning animal shelters – daily. Whoever uses it now should not be allowed to write anything, except maybe checks. I find it a tad annoying.

  • Therese

    Human person: Humans are persons from the moment of conception. We cannot be anything else. We don’t say human people, do we? But we do see ‘human being’ written quite often, to emphasise that as human beings we must respect our uniqueness and that human life is sacred.

  • venqax

    Agreed, human person is redundant. Human being, not so much and it is an old “stock phrase”. While all humans are beings, I suppose you could say that all beings are not human. Depends on what your meaning of being is being.

  • Laura

    I dislike it when people use “the reason why.” There is not a “reason how.” A reason is a why.

    C.v.s Jetty asked if it were acceptable to say “why because.” I can’t figure out what that is supposed to mean–because is an answer to why.

    I’ve never seen anyone use “human person” and I can’t imagine why someone would. I’ve never seen anyone differentiate “human” and “person” by proximity to birth as in Sandy’s comment. You are a person all your life and a human all your life.

  • Laura

    Oops, sorry to post twice in a row. I forgot another redundency that is ubiquitous, and that is, “each and every one of you.” Each of you means all. Every one means all. The same thing is true of “each and all of you,” which I don’t see used as much. These are overused, lazy ways to address a group of people.

  • Pallos

    Revert back is also overuesed.

    One I’m not sure about is over and over vs. over and over again.

    I always leave out the again….is there a correct way or both are acceptable?

  • venqax

    Over and over again is fine. You are saying something repeats, then repearts again, so as long as threepeat isn’t really a word you’re okay. Also, remember some things (not all, by any means) that are technically redundant are actually idioms in English that have taken on an acceptable quality of their own. I think, “each and every one” probably falls into that category. Like itsy bitsy, or teeny tiny. But I would agree things like revert back, added bonus, each and all, free gift, capitol building, are not acceptable. Likewise qualified absolutes like more or less unique, more complete, less perfect are to be condemned.

  • Dale A. Wood

    “safe haven” is an idiomatic phrase that has been around for centuries, so there is no good in arguing against it now. Some things in English just have to be accepted as they are.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I agree that “human being” is also an idiomatic phrase in English that just has to be accepted, and there is no use arguing against it.
    Sorry, but some people are just unaware of idiomatic phrases, but it is important to recognize them when we see them.

    Also, “human being” (the real thing) contrasts with other phrases such as “human form”, “human likeness”, “human appearance”, all of which are not the real thing.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    In legal language, a “human person” contrasts with a “corporate person”. This is because in English, American, and Canadian law, a corporation is a “corporate person” in several aspects:
    1. A corporation can be taxed
    2. A corporation can be fined by the government
    3. A corporate person can be executed for breaking the law. In this case, the corporation is abolished by the government.
    4. A corporation has some of the rights of a human person, such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the freedom to assemble peaceably.
    5. Furthermore, a “corporate person” can own property, and it can buy or sell property.
    On the other hand a “corporate person” cannot be put into prison, and there are certain other things that a “human person” can do that a “corporate person” cannot do.

    A “human person” might also be referred to as a “real person”. In either case, there are legal similarities and differences between the different kinds of persons, and that is all that I have to say about the matter because I and not a lawyer, but an engineer.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Concerning: “the reason why.”
    Once again, this is an idiomatic phrase that has been used in English for centuries, and it is something to be accepted and understood, and not argued about.
    “Theirs was not to reason why;
    Theirs was just to do and die.”

    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    “Evacuate out of” and “evacuate from” are perfectly-reasonable phrases in English, and there is nothing wrong with them. Consider these phrases from science:
    1. The air was evacuated out of the bottle.
    2. Almost all of the carbon dioxide had been evacuated from the flask.

    I do not think that these phrases are limited to scientific uses.
    Also if you wish, you can ascribe these phrases as idiomatic ones.
    I just know that they have been in use for at least 200 years, so they are not foolish neologisms.

  • Dale A. Wood

    When the word “sailor” is used, the default value of the word should be “a sailor of the navy”.
    Then in various counrtries there are also these:
    1. Sailors in the coast guard
    2. Sailors in the merchant marine
    3. Sailors who are civilians who travel the seas and oceans.

    Many U.S. Navy officers are sailors, and they are proud to use that title. It is true that there are other Naval officers who are aviators, submariners, logistics experts, physicians, surgeons, dentists, optometrists, attorneys, construction engineers, SEALs, etc. Some other navies might not have so many different kinds because the U.S. Navy is the largest navy in the world – and some countries have unified defense forces, such as Germany and Canada, and thus a lot of the support corps are combined.

    The word “Seaman” indicates a rank and a pay grade in the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard – for enlisted men. Officers are not seamen.
    Also, don’t get confused or upset: seaman, airman, hospitalman, militrary policeman, air policeman, and enlisted man all cover females as well as males (and halfway in between). The “man” is short for “human being”.
    A “machinist’s mate” or an “aviation machinist’s mate” can be either male or female in the modern Navy and Coast Guard.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I agree that ““each and every” is an idiomatic phrase that has been around since Hector was a pup, and thus is is not something to be argued against, but rather an idiom to be understood and appreciated.

    “Since Hector was a pup,” means for a very long time, and it is also an idiomatic phrase that comes from Homer’s tales of the Trojan War – the Iliad and the Odyssey.

    The phrase “each and every” contains the element of redundancy that was put in there for clariy and emphasis.

  • Heather

    “A new beginning”. I cringe when I come across that expression. Isn’t every beginning new? And how about “very unique”? I’m sure people would say that it adds emphasis but to me it seems like something a lazy high-schooler would use to beef up his word count. [Ducks dictionaries and thesauruses hurled by high-schoolers …]

    Or how about when people say “9 am in the morning”. AM is short for ante meridian, which means roughly before noon when the sun is at its meridian, with PM being short for post-meridian (after noon). Therefore, “9 am in the morning” is redundancy at its finest.

    And there I am again with run-on sentences!

  • Heather

    I agree that a baby nursery is a redundancy. Maybe we should rely on the context of a sentence and not assume that people might think we’re talking about acres of plants for sale when we write on Facebook; “fixed up the nursery today – so excited about this new crib!”

    There is a tendency to over-explain everything nowadays (aka “dumb it down”). When I’m reading a book if I don’t understand a word I look it up – and I actually get annoyed with fiction writers that put copious footnotes/endnotes into their work. Unless you’re writing VCE study guides or the like, I don’t think it’s necessary. This I’ve noticed occurs quite a lot in the glut of Pride & Prejudice fanfiction available for sale and it can spoil the story for me. Maybe the authors do it so that people don’t have to feel embarrassed about asking – or maybe they do it just to show off how learned they are.

  • Dave

    “It would be similarly redundant to say, “The chocolate-flavored ice cream cone”. ”

    Unless, of course, the ice cream is chocolate flavoured by chemical means rather than having any actual chocolate in it.

  • venqax

    How would that be different? Something flavored with a synthetic imitation of chocolate would still be “chocolate flavored”. That phrase in and of itself doesn’t convey whether the source of the flavoring is natural or artificial. If the cone were actually made of chocolate</i., e.g. your standard chocolate Easter bunny, it would be even "more" redundant because you'd be talking about chocolate flavored chocolate, I guess…

  • Randel Allee

    My favorite example of redundancy: “At this point in time.”

  • Nicole

    In certain contexts, some of these so-called redundancies would be necessary to distinguish between two types of things. For example, if the context of the sentence didn’t make it clear, “nursery” might be mistaken for a plant nursery rather than a baby nursery. Likewise, referring to “Army soldiers” would allow you to distinguish them from mercenary soldiers.

  • Earonn

    Belated I would like to speak up in favor of “army soldier”: the text might be read by someone who is not familiar with the structure and naming in the US troops.
    I absolutely agree that readers are much more clever than many think (after all, aren’t we readers? 😉 ) but please keep in mind that not every reader even comes from your own culture and that those who do might not have the same background knowledge.
    Also: idioms. Love those little bastards. Don’t kill them just to make language “logical”. Unless you are Gandalf.

  • Jerry Ketcherside

    Have you dealt with lecterns and podiums (podia?)?
    Why do presumably well educated news announcers continue to identify lecterns as podiums? The word “podium” itself should be a sufficient clue that its something upon which one stands

  • P.Shyamkishor

    When two words having the same meaning is used it is called tautology.

  • Gary

    Which is the proper term to use: Son-in-laws or Sons-in-law?

  • Maeve

    Gary,
    Speakers don’t agree on this one, so you will hear and see both. The Chicago Manual of Style leaves some to “common sense” and the entry in OED does not show a plural form.

    For American speakers, Merriam-Webster takes a stand with “sons-in-law.”
    You may find this post of use:

  • Jennifer

    A redundancy I see often in my students’ writing: “the reason why is,” and worse: “the reason why is because.”

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