This post pertains to varieties of pleonasms, instances of verbal redundancy, which are usually a sign of careless or lazy writing (though some are employed for rhetorical effect).
The word pleonasm stems from the Greek term pleonazein, meaning “to be excessive,” and is related to plenty, plural, and plus.
One type of redundancy is onomastic pleonasm (that’s one of my favorite phrases), in which a word derived from a foreign language referring to a type of geographical feature is redundantly paired with the English equivalent of that word to describe some such feature, as with “Sahara Desert” (proper usage is “the Sahara”) or “Mount Fujiyama” (Fujiyama, or “Mount Fuji”). However, some redundancy is tolerated, as in the case of “the River Avon”/“the Avon River” (though the various rivers so named, like many others, are often referred to without the categorical name: “the Avon”) and “the La Brea Tar Pits.”
Another is acronymic pleonasm, in which an acronym or initialism serves as an adjective for a noun already represented by one of the initials in the abbreviation, as in “ATM machine” or “CAD design.” (A related redundancy is “Please RSVP”; the acronym is an abbreviation of the French phrase “Repondez si’l vous plait,” meaning, “Respond, if you please.”) And speaking of abbreviations, e.g. (or its translation, “for example”) explicitly signals that one or more examples will be listed, so avoid tagging etc. onto the end of a list preceded by the abbreviation or the phrase (though etc. is not redundant to i.e., which means “that is”).
Redundancies often occur in phrases in which the meaning of an adjective is implicit in the noun, as in “new recruit,” “specific example,” and “temporary reprieve” or phrases in which the redundancy follows, rather than precedes, the sufficient word (“add up,” “postpone until later,” “repeat again”). Also, edit phrases in which a stated quality is already implied (“few in number,” “green in color.)”
Forgivable pleonasms include those in which the original meaning of a word has been subverted so that a clarifying adjective is required. For example, until a few decades ago, clocks were analogue, or mechanical. When digital timekeeping devices became the default type, it became necessary to sometimes qualify a description to “analog clock.” Likewise, in law and law enforcement, doublets such as “aid and abet” “breaking and entering,” and “cease and desist,” which are not literally redundant but appear so, persist.
However, writers and speakers should both cease and desist employing such pleonasms as “each and every,” “first and foremost,” and (shudder) “way, shape, or form.” In addition, two words that are usually implicitly pleonastic are currently and different; in “He is currently on vacation,” the present-tense verb renders currently superfluous, and in “They tried a variety of different strategies,” different is extraneous because variety is sufficient to convey distinction. Another word to monitor is completely when it is paired with a verb that implies finality, such as destroyed or eradicated, and avoid qualifying necessary with a qualifier such as absolutely.
Finally, Great Authors have employed pleonasm as a literary device, but unless you are a Great Author, minimize such flourishes as “I saw it with my own eyes.”
Subscribe to Daily Writing Tips and get a free eBook!
- Our weekly newsletter is free (one email per week, on Tuesdays)
- You will improve your English, guaranteed.
- Get our "100 Writing Mistakes to Avoid" eBook free.