From Academic Kids

Pleonasm is the use of more words than necessary to express an idea. The word comes originally from Greek πλεονασμóς pleonasmos ("excess").


Pleonasm usage

Often pleonasm is understood to mean an excess word or phrase which is unnecessary, clichd, or wrong. But a pleonasm can also be simply an unremarkable use of idiom. It can even aid in achieving a particular linguistic effect, be it social, poetic, or literary. In other words, pleonasm sometimes serves the same function as rhetorical repetition -- it reinforces a point, and makes the writing clearer and easier to understand.

In addition, pleonasms can serve purposes external to meaning. For example, a speaker who is overly terse is often interpreted as lacking ease or grace. This is because, in spoken language, sentences are spontaneously created without the benefit of going back and editing. The restriction on the ability to plan often creates much redundancy. In written language, removing words that aren't strictly necessary can sometimes make writing seem stilted or awkward, especially if the words are cut from an idiomatic expression.

Some pleonastic phrases are part of a language's idiom, like "safe haven" and "tuna fish" in English. They are so common that their use is unremarkable, although in many cases the redundancy can be dropped with no loss of meaning.

Pleonastic phrases like "off of" are common in spoken or informal written English, such as when used in a phrase like "keep the cat off of the couch", for instance. In a satellite-framed language like English, verb phrases containing particles that denote direction of motion are so frequent that even when such a particle is pleonastic, it seems natural to include it.

On the other hand, as is the case with any literary or rhetorical effect, excessive use of pleonasm can weaken writing or speech. Too many words can distract from the content. Writers who want to conceal a thought or a purpose sometimes obscure their meaning with an onslaught of verbiage. William Strunk Jr. argued for conciseness in The Elements of Style, (1918):

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

There are two kinds of pleonasm: syntactic pleonasm and semantic pleonasm.

Syntactic pleonasm

Syntactic pleonasm occurs when the grammar of a language makes certain function words optional. For example, consider the following English sentences:

  1. I know you are coming.
  2. I know that you are coming.

In this construction, the conjunction that is optional when joining a sentence to a verb phrase with know. Both sentences are grammatically correct, but the word that is considered pleonastic in this case.

The same phenomenon occurs in Spanish with subject pronouns. Since Spanish is a null subject language, which allows for subject pronouns to be deleted when understood, the following sentences mean the same:

  1. Yo te amo.
  2. Te amo.

In this case, the pronoun yo ("I") is grammatically optional; both sentences mean "I love you" (however, they may not have the same tone or intention — this depends on pragmatics rather than grammar).

The process of deleting pronouns is called pro-dropping, and it also happens in many other languages, like Portuguese, some Slavic languages, Finnish, and Lao.

The pleonastic ne (ne pléonastique) expressing uncertainty in formal French works as follows:

  1. Je crains qu'il ne pleuve.
    I fear it may rain.
  2. Ces idées sont plus difficiles à comprendre que je ne pensais.
    These ideas are harder to understand than I thought.

Another striking example of a French pleonastic construction is the word aujourd'hui "today", but originally meaning "on the day of today".

When Robert South said, "It is a pleonasam [sic], a figure usual in Scripture, by a multiplicity of expressions to signify one notable thing," he was observing the Biblical Hebrew poetic propensity to repeat thoughts in different words, a result of the fact that written Biblical Hebrew was one of the first forms of written language and was written using oral patterning, which has lots of pleonasms. The complex rules and forms of written language as distinct from spoken language hadn't been invented yet when the Bible was written. [1]

[1] Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy (New Accents), p. 38 ISBN 0415281296. Also, McWhorter, John C. Doing Our Own Thing, p. 19. ISBN 1592400841

Semantic pleonasm

Semantic pleonasm is more a question of style and usage than grammar. Linguists usually call this redundancy to avoid confusion with syntactic pleonasm, a more important phenomenon for theoretical linguistics. It can take various forms, including:

  • Overlap: One word's semantic component is subsumed by the other:
We watched the bear climb up from the bottom of the tree.
Receive a free gift with every purchase.
I ate a tuna fish sandwich.
  • Prolixity: A phrase may have words which add nothing to the meaning.
You should get the climbers off of the mountain.
Sometimes it's hard to face up to the facts.

See List of redundant expressions for more examples.

An expression like "tuna fish", however, will elicit one of two mental responses:

  1. It will simply be accepted as synonymous with "tuna".
  2. It will imply a distinction. A reader of "tuna fish" could properly wonder: Is there a kind of tuna which isn't a fish? There is, after all, a dolphin mammal and a dolphin fish. This assumption turns out to be correct, as a "tuna" is also a type of prickly pear [1] (

The second is a good reason for careful speakers and writers to be aware of pleonasms, especially with cases such as "tuna fish", which is only used in American English, and would sound strange in other dialects.

In contrast to redundancy, an oxymoron results when two seemingly contradictory words are adjoined.

Subtler redundancies

In some cases, the redundancy in meaning occurs at a syntactic level above the word, such as at the phrase level:

  • It's dj vu all over again.
  • I never make predictions, especially about the future.

(Note that in the first example, dj vu is a French phrase meaning "already seen.") The redundancy of these two well-known statements is deliberate, for humorous effect. (See Yogiisms.) But one does hear people say "my predictions about the future of politics". While not all predictions are about the future, it is clear because of the object that "the future" is assumed.

Sometimes editors and grammatical stylists will use pleonasm to describe simple wordiness. This phenomenon is also called prolixity or logorrhoea. Compare:

  • The sound of the loud music drowned out the sound of the burglary.
  • The loud music drowned out the sound of the burglary.

The reader or hearer does not have to be told that loud music has a sound.

Other forms

As in the dj vu example above, redundancies sometimes take the form of foreign words whose meaning is repeated in the context:

  • We went to the La Ristorante restaurant.
  • The La Brea tar pits are fascinating.

These sentences use phrases which mean, respectively, the the restaurant restaurant, the the tar tar pits.

Acronyms can also form the basis for redundancies:

  • She is infected with the HIV virus.
  • I forgot my PIN number for the ATM machine.

In both these examples, the word after the acronym repeats a word represented in the acronym—respectively, Human Immunodeficiency Virus virus, Personal Identification Number number and Automatic Teller Machine machine. (See RAS syndrome.)

Semantic pleonasm and context

In many cases of semantic pleonasm, the status of a word as pleonastic depends on context. The relevant context can be as local as a neighboring word, or as global as the extent of a speaker's knowledge. In fact, many examples of redundant expressions aren't inherently redundant, but can be redundant if used one way, and aren't redundant if used another way. The up in climb up is not always redundant, as in the example "He climbed up and then fell down the mountain." Many other examples of pleonasm are redundant only if you take the speaker's knowledge into account. For example, most English speakers would agree that "tuna fish" is redundant because tuna is a kind of fish. However, given the knowledge that tuna can also be a kind of edible prickly pear [2] (, the fish in "tuna fish" is no longer necessarily a pleonasm, but now disambiguates between the fish and the prickly pear. Conversely, to English speakers who know no Spanish, there is nothing redundant about "The La Brea tar pits" because the name "La Brea" is opaque: the speaker doesn't know that it's Spanish for "the tar". Similarly, even though scuba stands for "self-contained underwater breathing apparatus", a phrase like "the scuba gear" would probably not be analyzed as pleonastic because scuba has been reanalyzed into English as a simple adjective.

Pleonasms in literature

  • This was the most unkindest cut of all.--William Shakespeare
  • O LORD, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me;--Psalm 3:1, New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. (See Robert South's comment under Pleonasms in other languages herein.)
  • From that day mortal, and this happie State/ Shalt loose, expell'd from hence into a World/ Of woe and sorrow.—John Milton, Paradise Lost. (See also Shakespeare's Sonnet 81.)
  • Beyond the garage were some decorative trees trimmed as carefully as poodle dogs.—Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep. (When Chandler wrote this line, poodles may not have been as widely known as now. He may have chosen the redundancy to assure his simile would be understood.)

See also

de:Pleonasmus fr:Plonasme nl:Pleonasme ru:Плеоназм


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