Here are the most common pleonasms you need to avoid using

A pleonasm uses two or more words, of which one is redundant, to express an idea

By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Thu 6 Oct 2022, 11:13 PM

A couple of columns ago we discussed “unnecessary” words, taking a swipe at legalese in particular for piling word upon phrase to say the simplest things. There’s a particular term for the use of superfluous words: pleonasm, a term derived from a Greek word that means “excess”. A pleonasm uses two or more words, of which one is redundant, to express an idea. The classic example of a two-word pleonasm is “burning fire” (after all, a fire, by definitions, burns) and that of a whole pleonastic phrase is “I saw it with my own eyes”. If you saw it you had to have used your own eyes, right? The same holds true for “heard with my own ears” and “touched with my own hands” — you can’t touch with someone else’s hands or hear with someone else’s ears!

Whereas an oxymoron (like “open secret” or “act naturally”) combines two contradictory terms, a pleonasm uses synonymous ones, like “armed gunman” (if he’s a gunman, he’s armed) or “tuna fish“ (if it’s tuna, it’s a fish). A pleonasm isn’t the same as a tautology, which is a repetition of the same idea in different words. A pleonasm uses redundant, superfluous words you don’t really need — which is what I just did in this sentence to make my point!

What are the most common pleonasms you need to be conscious of and avoid? “Advance planning” and “advance warning” are widespread: if you plan or warn, you always do so in advance, so why add the word? The same with “mix together”, once you mix something it obviously gets the elements together; you can’t mix something apart! Similarly, “close proximity”, “empty hole”, “exact replica”, and “young child” — the noun contains the meaning that the adjective seeks to add, so why not drop the adjective? My fellow Indians are often guilty of saying they will “return back” — an Indianism and a pleonasm all in one!

One of the best examples of a sentence combining three or four pleonasms in one is: “It was an unexpected surprise when a pair of baby twins was born at 12 midnight”. A surprise, after all, can hardly be expected; twins always come in pairs; midnight can only come at 12 — so none of those extra words were necessary. And the fourth pleonasm? Can anyone be born who is not a baby? All four pleonasms could have been avoided by simply saying “They were surprised when twins were born at midnight.”

Our daily lives are full of pleonasms — shops trying to tempt us with “free gifts” (if it’s a gift it had better be free!), advertisements for “hot water heaters” (if your water is already hot, why does it need heating?), travel agencies asking us to make “advance reservations” (reservations have to be in advance of your going anywhere), mechanics breaking your things down to their “component parts” (a component is a part), friends telling you they did something on a “sudden impulse” (acting impulsively is always sudden), and even English teachers telling you to avoid “overused clichés” (a cliché is, by definition, a term rendered trite by overuse). Every one of these phrases could have benefited from deleting the first word in them.

It is, however, true that pleonasms are not always to be avoided. Orators love them as a rhetorical device to drive their point home: politicians will declaim their promises that they will deliver you services “free, gratis, and you will pay nothing at all”. Indeed, pleonasms are also an accepted literary device used for emphasis by some authors and not just speakers. They were rendered respectable by no less an eminence than William Shakespeare, in whose Julius Caesar there appears the famous pleonastic phrase, “This was the most unkindest cut of all…” If it was the “unkindest”, it was already the “most unkind”, and if you wrote this in a high school essay, your teacher would be expected to put a big red circle around the phrase “most unkindest”. But Shakespeare is, well, Shakespeare, and he got away with this horrific pleonasm — which is not to say you would.

In keeping with the pleonastic spirit, I will return to the topic next week!

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