Why use two words when one says it all?
Some people think the extra words add emphasis. In reality, pairs of words with similar meaning do little more than add unnecessary bulk to your narrative. The use of redundant words seldom improves your writing. Unless your goal is to reach a certain number of words, why use two words one word says it all?
Let’s get the technical out of the way first. There is a word that means using a word that adds no extra meaning to a sentence: pleonasm. There is also a word that means refers to the needless repetition of words or ideas: tautology.
Pleonasm: the use of more words than necessary to convey meaning Click To Tweet Tautology: saying the same thing more than once with different words Click To Tweet
For the purpose of this article, to avoid sounding like I am using a pleonasm or tautology when talking about them, I will simply use the term redundant words. Below are some of the redundant words that frequently trip me up in my own writing.
One of the difficulties with redundant words is that they are so common in spoken word that we don’t even notice them. When you are in your first draft stage, just getting your ideas on paper, repetitious expressions used in day-to-day speech will flow naturally into your writing. Often it’s only in the editing phase that you are likely to catch them.It's like deja vu all over again - Yogi Berra Click To Tweet
Finding Redundant Words.
Eliminating redundancy in your writing requires careful examination of the meaning of your words. Every word you use should have a purpose and should say exactly what you need to say. Remember, if the extra words don’t add something new to your message – leave them out. Below are some tools to decrease your use of unnecessary words.
Wait to do your editing.
Give it a few hours or a few days if practical. You’ll be more able to spot unneeded words when looking at your material with a fresh eye.
Know your own tendencies.
After reviewing your many pieces of your own work, you will likely notice some redundant phrases are common in your text. Make a list of ones to watch for. In business writing, I frequently find myself using the phrase: briefly summarize. It wasn’t until an intern, fresh out of college, teased me about it that I even recognized the redundancy. Now I know to look for it when I am editing my own work.
Look for multi-word modifiers.
Often you can remove one of the words from a multi word modifier without changing the meaning you are trying to convey. An example: a big fat cigar. Can you take out either big or fat and have the same imagery? If so, take one of the words out.
Look for modifiers that repeat the word they are modifying.
Adjectives are often unnecessary. But pay particular attention for adjectives that merely restate their noun. For example, in the phrase final outcome, does outcome not already say its final? And what is the use of the word past when used with history? Is all history by definition past history?
Sometimes it’s Okay
In certain cases redundant words do add emphasis or clarity to the sentence and may be best left in. A redundancy can add a degree of explicitness that reinforces an idea. An example would be “advance warning.” Think about the difference between a severe weather watch and a severe weather warning. When the weather man announces a severe weather watch, he tells you that the conditions are right for severe weather. The word watch could be an indication of the advance warning that precautions might be appropriate. On the other hand, if the weather reporter announces a severe weather warning you should take cover now. You no longer have advance warning, you have immediate warning.
Another use of redundant words that might be acceptable is in technical writing. Writing requirements or instructions often requires concise phrasing that leaves no room for interpretation. Test and evaluate my not be redundant in software development. They may be two sequential steps.
Poems and song lyrics benefit from redundant words. “I want to live while I am alive” (Bon Jovi). Children’s books blossom with repetition and rhythm as in Dr Seuss’ statement in Horton Hears A Who, “a person’s a person no matter how small.” Yogi Berra’s famous quote, “You can observe a lot by watching,” shows how repetition can be used for humor.
As a general rule, writers should avoid using repetitious phrases. Modern style guides stress the concept of concise sentences that contain no superfluous words. And if we accept this rule and severely limit redundancies in our sentence, the occasional use of repetition will add emphasis or clarity to the sentence. But I encourage you to reread and edit out as much of the tautology as you can find. In the words of Mark Twain, in Autobiography of Mark Twain:
“I do not find that the repetition of an important word a few times—say, three or four times—in a paragraph troubles my ear if clearness of meaning is best secured thereby. But tautological repetition which has no justifying object, but merely exposes the fact that the writer’s balance at the vocabulary bank has run short and that he is too lazy to replenish it from the thesaurus—that is another matter. It makes me feel like calling the writer to account.”
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