For many of us, either out of a sense of drama or because we simply don’t realize we’re doing it, adding unnecessary words seems intrinsic to our style of communication. Have you, for example, ever described something as “completely empty” or “the exact same” or asked people to “please RSVP” to your “pre-planning” meeting?
It’s okay. Lots of people do this—enough people that there’s a word dedicated to the practice of using more words than are necessary to express an idea: pleonasm. It comes from the Greek “pleaonasmos” meaning excess, and, typically, anything in excess is bad. (In excess, not INXS. Everything INXS is good. Well, almost.)
Comedian George Carlin even wrote a long joke entitled “Count the Superfluous Redundant Pleonastic Tautologies” in his book, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?:"I needed a new beginning, so I decided to pay a social visit to a personal friend with whom I share the same mutual objectives and who is one of the most unique individuals I have ever personally met. The end result was an unexpected surprise. When I reiterated again to her the fact that I needed a fresh start, she said I was exactly right; and, as an added plus, she came up with a final solution that was absolutely perfect. Based on her past experience, she felt we needed to join together in a common bond for a combined total of twenty-four hours a day, in order to find some new initiatives. What a novel innovation! And, as an extra bonus, she presented me with the free gift of a tuna fish. Right away I noticed an immediate positive improvement. And although my recovery is not totally complete, the sum total is I feel much better now knowing I am not uniquely alone.”
Okay, intentially excessive, sure, but how many of those might have in the past (or might yet in the future) wormed their way into your written communication?
The weird thing is, if you were to apply the same attention and count to many legal documents, you’d probably find a disturbingly similar number of pleonasms. “Null and void,” “terms and conditions,” and “cease and desist” are just a few pleonastic phrases to be found in legal writing. Justification for their usage comes from the idea that these are standardized phrases specific to that industry and have become known as “legal doublets” that are part of a legally operative language. Nice workaround, lawyers.
So in legal documents we have to give it a pass. And, in literature where it’s clear the author is using pleonasms as a stylistic tool, we have to give it a pass. But in business writing or on your website, I say, avoid pleonasms like the plague. Here are some to watch out for:
Oh, and this goes for me, too, friends. Please don’t think I’m not pinning this list to my desktop so that I don’t become a fool of my own. And, if you ever catch me using a pleonastic phrase, and it’s not in some amazing legal doc I’ve written or the most moving literary piece you’ve ever read, you have the right to call me out on it.