Monday, July 18, 2011

An A to Z of Editorial Peeves: R

Today, I tackle one (and only one) controversial element of language that we've all seen: Words that only repeat information that has already been stated, either explicitly or implicitly.

They are otherwise known as redundancies.

ATM machines. PIN numbers. Mixing together. Free gifts. Passing fads.

If you're looking for redundancies, you'll find them everywhere. But when you find one, what do you do? Do you whip out a Sharpie and "correct" it? Do you tweet a picture of it and quip about its creator's stupidity? Do you blog about the decline of editorial standards and bemoan the imminent loss of English-as-we-know-it?

Or do you store it away so you can avoid it in your own writing — or use it later yourself?

I hope you're the store-it-away type, because it's the other types — the people who deface, ridicule, and wail — who I don't like. They are my peeve.

See, what some people fail to recognize is that a redundancy is not necessarily an error. Sure, a redundancy repeats information, but some information is worth repeating. Redundancies can be used to great effect to emphasize a particular point ("first and foremost"), to create a sense of urgency or insistence ("Sit down and do not speak a word!"), or any of a number of reasons, including the simple fact that people just use a phrase that way ("period of time," "safe haven").

Sure, some redundancies are outright mistakes — slips by an author that she would happily correct if you pointed them out. And there are certain redundancies that we, individually, find appalling or grating (personally: "ATM machine" and "the reason why"). And that's okay. You're allowed to have your own tastes.

But the moment you latch on to redundancies and label them as errors for the simple fact that they are redundant, you land yourself in hot water.

There's more to language than grammar, definition, and syntax. Sentences can have inferences, subtleties, and connotations — in short, subtext. A well-placed redundancy can create that subtext, making the redundant phrase not only correct but essential to the sentence, and not just a few needless words that ought to be omitted.

Redundancies are like a salt shaker. Using it too much and too thoughtlessly can have disastrous consequences, including elevated blood pressure for your, er, consumers. But that's no reason to avoid ever using it, and you have no reason to be afraid of it. When used properly, it can enhance the overall flavor of what you're creating, adding just the right spice.

Just for fun, here are a few examples of what I'm talking about. The first sentence in each pair is bereft of redundancies, and also bereft of subtext and subtlety. The second sentence in each pair gives the same basic information but contains one or more redundant phrases. Notice how the redundancies alter the overall meaning, mood, and tone of the sentence.

Pick up those army men before the company gets here, young man!
Pick up each and every last little army man before the guests get here, young man!

In my opinion, you vacillate between being too needy and too proud.
In my personal opinion, you vacillate back and forth and back and forth between being too needy and too proud.

I vote yes!
I vote positively and affirmatively yes!

Is it necessary that I present only facts?
Is it absolutely necessary that I present only actual facts?

I'd love to hear which redundancies grind on your ear the most. Or you favorite redundancies (or, as @jadoogan put it, a favorite redundancy that [you] love the most). Or even some more pairings like the ones I have here that show how redundancies, far from being errors, can be great tools (especially if the examples come from great literature).

Comments are open!