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Mostly Useful Redundancies

In the crusade against flabby writing, we're often counseled to get rid of redundancies with a machete. We are to show no mercy for the likes of repeated ideas and words. But following this "rule" blindly, as with following any rule blindly, can result in text that fails to get its meaning across. There are times when redundancy is a boon to the text rather than a scourge.

Useful Redundancy

Critics are quick to denounce redundancy, but they're not as quick at pointing out its usefulness.

Language has redundancies built in to its grammar. These redundancies are such a part of language that we don't think of them that way. No one would argue against the usefulness of matching a singular subject with a singular verb in a sentence, yet this is a type of redundancy. Nor is anyone likely to take offense at those boys, another redundancy. That's the way language works. It marks such things as number more than once to ensure understanding, even if part of the message is missed.

That's the key to any useful redundancy: ensuring something important isn't missed, even if part of the message is.

New ideas, complex directions or thoughts, and important information are all cases in which a little redundancy can help meaning get across.

For example:

Mix together the brownie mix, 2 eggs, 1/2 cup oil, and 1/4 water.

Although mix together is redundant, it helps ensure the reader knows what to do, even if they skip over the first word. It's a common phrase in recipes. While mix could do the job on its own, together serves as emphasis, essentially saying, "Hey, don't miss this bit! It's important!"

Harmful Redundancy

But as we've been taught, redundancy can bury the message as easily as it can emphasize it. Put too many words in a sentence and the reader might wonder where the subject and verb are in all of it. Such redundant words are called pleonasms. You can remove a pleonasm from a sentence without changing the meaning. In fact, the meaning will probably stand out clearer. Consider:

Unless and until politicians in Washington have the courage to tackle runaway entitlement programs, no president … is going to put a dent in the deficit. —USA Today (2012)

Which is it: unless or until? While unless means "except under the conditions of" and until means "before a specific time," in this case, there's not much meaning difference. Either way, according to the sentence, the deficit won't get better without the entitlement programs being fixed. Choosing unless or until will provide the sentence with more punch:

Until politicians in Washington have the courage to tackle runaway entitlement programs, no president … is going to put a dent in the deficit.

Many resources offer lists of common redundancies to watch for. Garner's Modern American Usage lists these, among many others:

brief respite
new recruit
plead a plea
visible to the eye

Amy Spencer, tweeting as @EditUnited, frequently features redundancies she's found in her editing. Some of my favorites are:

blatantly obvious
future leaders of tomorrow
online website
toward the direction of

This type of redundancy restates the obvious rather than restating the important. Readers may need to grasp your meaning, but they don't need to be talked down to. Fixing these redundancies should be a matter of course.

(Mostly) Harmless Redundancy

Some redundancies have been used so often that we cease to recognize them as such:

end result
off of
pick and choose
refer back
safe haven

We use these phrases so often that they've become idiomatic. In your writing, these phrases are, as Douglas Adams might say, "mostly harmless." You can edit them to tighten your writing, but if you leave them, no one will think less of you (except maybe those critics who have completely lost touch with real language usage; feel free to ignore those critics).

Generally, stopping to consider what a word actually means will help you spot redundancies. Considering how important that redundancy is to meaning will help you decide if it should stay in the sentence or go.


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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday September 13th 2012, 3:15 PM
Comment by: WordKraft (Canton, OH)
Tuna fish: harmful or harmless ... or not even a pleonasm. Please warn me in advance when you respond.
Thursday September 13th 2012, 4:04 PM
Comment by: Rae (Titusville, FL)
Erin Brenner's, "Mostly Useful Redundancies," was a great piece and I enjoyed it very much. Thank you. I'm going now to see if I can find her blogs.
Thursday September 13th 2012, 4:21 PM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, Rae!

WordKraft: I'd say harmless. The American Heritage Dictionary lists tuna fish as a variant of tuna for "the edible flesh of tuna, often canned or processed."
Saturday September 15th 2012, 1:04 PM
Comment by: Canberk Y. (Mersin Turkey)
Thank you for this enjoyable piece, Ms. Brenner.

"Unless and until..." I found the first example to harmful redundancy quite interesting. I wonder whether this politically charged sentence would have served its purpose better and ceased to contain any redundancies if "or" had been used instead of "and". It feels as if "unless" suggests the gloomy prospect that the politicians in question will never muster the courage, while "until" tones down the criticism and leaves the door open for the possibility that they might, but in turn emphasizes urgency. It is almost like an imaginary dialogue between the author and the recipients of his/her criticism. What do you think?
Monday September 17th 2012, 9:05 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, Canberk. I agree with your reading of "unless" and "until," but I see it as the author not deciding what their stance is. Does the author question whether politicians will gather their courage or do they think the pols will muster their courage, but it's just a matter of time? The author is ducking the issue, and that to my mind weakens the argument.
Tuesday September 18th 2012, 2:02 PM
Comment by: Dan F. (Minneapolis, MN)
How about, "close proximity," which I hear a lot?
Tuesday September 18th 2012, 3:07 PM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Hi, Dan. Although not the most elegant of phrases, "close proximity" has become a set phrase. It's something you can avoid in your writing, but I wouldn't criticize it in others' writing.
Wednesday September 26th 2012, 2:38 AM
Comment by: susan P. (forest city, PA)
"Mix {together the} brownie mix, 2 eggs, 1/2 cup oil, and 1/4 water."...just say no.

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