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Irritations: Obnoxious pleonasms

We reported in The Sun this week that President Bush “proposed new initiatives” in his State of the Union speech. An initiative is an action or proposal that is started or introduced. The word comes from the Latin initiare, “to begin.” So an initiative is a beginning, something new, and “new initiative” is redundant except in cases that contrast an initiative with previous acts or proposals.

“New initiative” is a tautology, a repetition of a meaning in different words. Or, if you like, it is a pleonasm (from the Greek pleon, “more”), or redundancy of expression. Pleonasms can constitute repetitions for deliberate effect, as in William Faulkner’s Nobel speech about the “old verities and truths of the heart,” but they are most commonly errors.

Journalism is littered with redundant expressions:

Advance planning: Planning is, by definition, done in advance.

Close scrutiny: To scrutinize is to examine closely.

Consensus of opinion: A consensus is an opinion that a group of people have come to share.

Final results: The result is the outcome, the final thing. This tautology turns up in articles about elections, in which speaking of early returns and final returns would be more accurate.

Mass exodus: The word exodus means the departure of a large group of people. Adding mass adds nothing.

Safe haven: A favorite of pretentious bureaucrats. A haven is a safe place; a safe haven would be a safe safe place. This subliterate phrase is presumably the result of confusion with safe harbor. A harbor can be a safe or an exposed anchorage, which makes that distinction meaningful.

And there are a number of misunderstood abbreviations:

ATM machine: It’s an automated (not automatic) teller machine.

HIV virus: Human immunodeficiency virus.

PIN number: Personal identification number.

The expression SAT test used to be redundant, when the initials stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test or Scholastic Assessment Test. But the Educational Testing Service has decided to use the initials only, asserting that SAT does not mean anything. I am not inclined to dispute that.      

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:52 AM | | Comments (3)


This blog is fun.
A few more tautologies:

adequate enough
and etc.
appear on the scene
ascend up
at about (example 3 pm)
attach together
attached hereto
both alike
burned down and burned up
classified into classes
collaborate together
connect together and connect up
cooperate together
coupled together
debate about
descend down
discuss about
divide off and divide up
drink up and drink down
early beginnings
eat up
enclosed herewith or herein
end up
equally as
file away
final completion
final upshot
finish up
first begin
first debut
flood over
follow after
forbear from
forbid from
free, gratis, and for nothing
fresh beginner
from hence, from thence, from whence
funeral obsequies
gather together
have got
good benefit
hoist up
hurry up
important essentials
in between
inside of
join together
joint cooperation
just exactly
just merely
just recently
lend out
linked together
little birdling
meet together
mention about
merge together
mingle together
mixed together
more inferior
more superior
more preferable
mutual cooperation
necessary requisite
new beginner
new creation
new departure and entirely new departure
new innovation
now remains
open up
original source
outside of
over again
over with (done, ended, finished)
pair of twins
past history
peculiar freak
penetrate into
plan on
polish up
practical practice/ use
presence on the scene
proceed on
protrude out
razed to the ground
really realise
recall back
reduce down
refer back
relax back
remember of
render a return
renew again
repay back
repeat again
repeat the same
rest up
return back
retire back
revert back
revive again
rise up
seldom ever
separate apart
settle up
shrink down and up
sink down
steady on
still continue
still more yet
still remain
study up
sufficient enough
swallow down
taste of
termed as
than what
this next week
twice over
two halves
two twins
uncommonly strange
unite together
used to do (something) before
we all and you all
where at
where to
whether or not
widow woman
young infant

Based on Maurice H. Weseen's 'Words Confused and Misused', 1932

At my paper, we call these "baby puppies."

While I agree in large part, I also find myself tending toward James Kilpatrick's sugestion that some things are "benign redundancies." see

Like the "nape of the neck" Kilpatrick cites, sometimes they are useful in context and in cadence. "She logged on and entered her PIN" has a bit of a clipped feel; I would not object, for instance, to a writer saying she entered her PIN number. Will everyone instantly know that's redundant? Maybe. Will they care? But that's the judgment call with these things. Obviously, once things become widely enough known, the helper word usually can be dropped. There was a time not too long ago when HIV virus, though redundant, was sensible to use, as it had not yet exploded onto the public consciousness.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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