Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Pleonasms: Déjà Vu All Over Again

Before reading this brief NPR article last week, we'd never heard of pleonasms before. Since we were curious about this linguistic term, we're dedicating today's post to exploring its meaning as well as its use in language.

The word pleonasm comes from the Greek term pleonasmos, which means "more" or "too much". In English, it refers to the use of more words than necessary to convey meaning. While you might think that using redundant speech would always be incorrect or unnecessary, pleonasms can also be used to help make language easier to understand.

These tigers have nothing to do with pleonasms...
we just really love cats of all shapes and sizes!
There are dozens of pleonasms that are so commonly used in the English-speaking world that you've probably never stopped to think about them. Two prime examples are "terms and conditions" and "null and void", which are often used in legal texts. Perhaps we don't often complain about this redundancy since we rarely take the time to actually read the terms and conditions...

If you want to focus on pleonasms from a linguistic standpoint, they generally fall into two categories: syntactic and semantic. Syntactic pleonasms are words that are not required for grammatical reasons. For example, in the phrase "I know that you love me", the word "that" is a pleonasm because it is unnecessary.

Other examples of syntactic pleonasms include multiple negation and multiple affirmation. While most people don't shudder to hear multiple affirmations such as "I do love you" (in which "do" is unnecessary, but can be used to add emphasis), many do have very strong feelings about multiple negation. Some people often use double negatives like "there ain't no other way", while others cringe to hear them.

However, the most interesting pleonasms are often semantic pleonasms, which are created by using redundant terms. If you're a native English speaker, you've undoubtedly used some semantic pleonasms before, while others may be at the top of your language pet peeves. Some of the most common semantic pleonasms in English include: "free gift", "tuna fish", and "different species".

Other common semantic pleonasms involve foreign terms and acronyms. For instance, several French terms have led to frequently used pleonasms, including "déjà vu all over again" and "please RSVP". However, the most famous pleonasms that drive people crazy are undoubtedly those that involve acronyms, such as "ATM machine", "PIN number", and "HIV virus". If you want to avoid the admonitions of friends who act like the grammar police, you can save yourself a lot of trouble by saying "ATM", "PIN", and "HIV" instead.

Did we leave out a pleonasm that you find helpful, or one that simply drives you crazy? Let us know about it in the comments below!