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Dr. Goodword's Office

Do I Have to Repeat Myself?

Redundancy in Language

Dr. Goodword (Robert Beard, PhD, Linguistics)

The usage critics often hone in on phrases that are logically redundant, claiming that logical redundancy is bad grammar and should be avoided. I have in mind now phrases that have long since settled in, like old adage, mental telepathy, PIN (personal identity number) number, and VAT (value-added tax) tax. We can include the word the with hoi polloi (the hoi polloi) since hoi means "the" in Greek, the English the might seem redundant. Other examples include consensus of opinion, hollow tube, and refer back, which critics claim bear an unnecessary modifier or qualifier. So much has been written and said about these phrases, this contribution may seem like, as Yogi Berra so redundantly put it, "déjà vu all over again."

There is no question that phrases like these are redundant: one word repeats semantic information found in the other. All adages are old by definition and what other kind of telepathy is there besides mental? The question is whether redundancy is bad grammar.

Well, redundancy per se certainly isn't bad grammar or the same critics would raise their voices against constructions like a red, red rose or a very, very, very good wine. Redundancy is every where in language. In the sentence, "He works a lot," the -s on work is redundant, since it only indicates that the subject (he) is 3rd person singular. But that information is already in he, itself. This, in fact, is why in some dialects, such as Black English, it is dropped: "He work hard, man." We don't need it.

The -s is also redundant with numbers. In the phrase five cows the -s is unnecessary since the number five makes plurality clear. In fact, Far Eastern languages like Chinese and Vietnamese, get along famously without a plural marker of any sort: five cow is perfectly clear.

In fact, redundancy is often required by grammar, as in the case of the use of -s with verbs and nouns. In other cases it is used for effect and the usual effect is emphasis. Why would anyone speak of a drinkable wine when wine is only made for drinking? What could playable piano mean when all pianos are built only to be played? Being able to be played is part of the definition of piano.

But a drinkable wine is not simply a wine that you can drink, but a wine very much able to be drunk, that you would want to drink more than others. A playable piano is one that is very playable, one that you would prefer playing over others. The semantic redundancy here emphasizes the drinkability and playability, that they are very much drinkable and very much playable. The results are the same as that of the two red's in red, red rose implying that the rose is very red.

The phrases that so often fall under criticism as redundancies in fact fall into several classes. Some expressions, such as old adage, mental telepathy, consensus of opinion, hollow tube can be taken as examples of emphasis, emphasizing the age or nature of the adage, telepathy, or tube.

Expressions like PIN number, VAT tax, and the hoi polloi are instances of foreign words or abbreviations having become words on the own, no longer related to their origins. There really isn't redundancy in these any more; only if you mentally restore the phrases they come from.

Some redundant phrases do grate on everyone's ear (the general test of grammaticality, whether a word or phrase is 'correct' or not): more redder or drownded with two past tense markers are neither required by grammar nor used for emphasis. These redundancies certainly should be avoided. The others, however, live in very proper company in the English language, so don't give a second thought to using them.

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