The Grammarphobia Blog

Repeat offenders

Q: I’m driving my wife nuts from pointing out double speech on the air—two bites at the same meaning. A Fresh Air guest on NPR: “Take precautions about events before they happen.” A guest on Charlie Rose: “Playing solitaire by himself.”

 A: Yes, those are examples of redundancies, but we should mention a mitigating circumstance.

In speaking, it’s difficult to plan a sentence on the spot. We’re not all Bill Buckleys. If those sentences had been written, the redundancies might have been edited out.

But there’s something more at work here, we think.

On the radio, some speakers don’t seem to trust that people are really listening. (Maybe they can’t believe that anybody’s actually out there!) So they double up on their meaning.

One speaker thinks the phrase “playing solitaire” doesn’t adequately convey the image of a lonely person playing cards by himself. So he adds “by himself.”

Another speaker thinks taking “precautions” isn’t good enough. He has to emphasize that he’s preparing for the events “before they happen.”

However, there are redundancies and then there are redundancies. Repeating ourselves isn’t always a bad thing.

Many common (and often irritating) expressions that we hear every day are out-and-out redundancies—“plan in advance,” “major milestone,” and “free gift” come to mind. It would be nice if they disappeared, but don’t count on it.

Then there are constructions that are technically redundant—like “chase after,” “four different trips,” “first time ever”—but can be justified as emphatic usages, as we  wrote in a 2012 posting.

And, as we said in 2008, “there’s a kind of expression (the writer Ben Yagoda calls it ‘the salutarily emphatic redundancy’) that is memorable chiefly because of its apparent repetition. A good example is ‘Raid kills bugs dead.’ ”

We won’t expand on those two blog items here. We don’t want to repeat ourselves!

Check out our books about the English language