Plentiful fun with Pleonasms

Add extra emphasis to your writing with pleonasms, says Roopa Bannerjee

“She rubbed the cool ice on her skin.” Why in the world is the word ‘cool’ used? After all, there is no such thing as ‘hot’ ice! ‘Cool ice’ is a pleonasm i.e, when we use more words than are necessary in what we say or write. Some find this figure of speech irritating or annoying while others use it to emphasise a point. Yet, omitting the extra words generally makes no difference to the content and can at times, end up making the sentence concise.

Pleonasm comes from the Greek verb pleonazein which means “to be excessive”. Pleon means more. The modern word for pleonazein is ‘redundant’.

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, its first known use was in the year 1610. Pleonasms are often a fault in good writing. While their usage can be avoided for a clearer narrative, sometimes they are used deliberately to highlight an idea. For instance a pleonasm could be a useful tool in speeches or lectures where we need to put our point across emphatically. Merriam Webster says: “The ‘extra’ words can sometimes be helpful to a speaker or writer by simply adding an appealing sound and rhythm to a phrase — as, for example, with the pleonasm “I saw it with my own eyes!”

So, how do we differentiate between the pleonasms to be avoided and the ones that add flair to what we are saying/writing? A good benchmark is that if we experience hesitation or lack of confidence in phrasing what we say, then that pleonasm should be avoided. For example, “The evening sunset was beautiful” or “She over-exaggerates a lot” is plain wrong. However, a happy and proud child declaring “I made this birthday card for you with my own hands, Mom!” is a happy exception — it emphasises the preciousness of the gift and the effort involved.

To use or not to use
Most people believe they are more precise if they avoid pleonasms altogether. For instance doctors consciously keep away from pleonasms as they are wary of over-explaining to patients. On the other hand, pleonasms are often used in legal documents to add clarity to phrases such as ‘will and testament’ and ‘breaking and entering’. The reason behind this could be the ancient practice of drafting English documents with a mixture of Anglo-Saxon and French or Latin words and phrases. Academic and linguist David Crystal notes in The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Language, that when early writers were unsure if both terms or words had the same meaning or that others might not have a clear under- standing of French or Latin phrases, they included both side by side, to be sure everyone understood.

Many of us use pleonasms reflexively when we cite acronyms. For example, ABS means Anti-lock Braking System system. The acronym already includes the word ‘system’, yet we tend to re-use it. Similarly, this commonly happens when people say ATM machine when Automatic Teller Machine already includes the word ‘machine’. These are pleonasms that occur involuntarily. Used accidentally, a pleonasm is just long-winded wordiness, like a sentence that includes far more words than is necessary.

Spot the extra words
Read through the passage given below and underline the pleonasms:
Riya had written the autobiography of her own life herself in just two weeks. Everyone liked it, and the vote was completely and totally unanimous to immediately publish it right away. It was the usual habitual custom among Riya’s friends to celebrate any success with coffee and cake. Rohan and Karan decided to co-operate together in planning an unexpected surprise party for Riya. Thanks to their joint collaboration and advance planning, the party was a huge success.

(Answers: autobiography-herself, completely-totally, immediately-right away, usual-habitual, co-operate-to- gether, unexpected-surprise, joint-collaboration, advance- planning)

The article was published in the print version of ParentsWorld February 2018 issue.