"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: 06/09/13

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Between Useless and Useful Tautologies in English (II)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

For the part I, click this link

A reader called my attention to the fact that Aso Rock is also a tautonym in the class of Lake Chad and Lagos Lagoon. He said “Aso” is the Gbagyi word for “rock” so that, were it not for the fact that “aso” and “rock” belonged to two mutually unintelligible languages, Aso Rock would translate as “Rock rock.” I also learned recently that “Sahara desert” is a tautonym because “sahara” is the Arabic word for “great desert.” But as I said last week, grammarians have no problems with tautological place names because they aid clarity. They belong to what I have termed socially favored tautologies.

 But there is a wide range of tautological expressions in English that invite the scorn and rebuke of the grammar police and that careful writers avoid. I call those types of tautologies socially disfavored tautologies. There are at least four types that I can identify: the RAS syndrome, semantic redundancies, double comparatives/superlatives, and double negatives.

 The RAS syndrome. The phrase stands for Redundant Acronym Syndrome Syndrome. It is deliberately repetitive to call attention to the errors it mimics, that is, the tendency to repeat the last words of common abbreviations, such as ATM machine (the “m” in ATM stands for “machine”), PIN number (the “n” in PIN stands for “number”), HIV virus (the “v” in HIV stands for “virus”), OPEC countries (the “C” in OPEC stands for “countries”), RAM memory, etc.  The RAS syndrome is easier to avoid in writing than in speaking, and some authorities actually say it is justified in speech because it reinforces meaning and clarity.

Semantic redundancies. These are expressions that are universally ridiculed as needlessly repetitive. Examples are “both the two of them” (both already implies “two-ness”), “return back,” “adequate enough,” “repeat again,” “new innovation,” “added bonus,” “kill to death,” “short summary,” “joint collaborations,” “fellow colleague,” “loud bang,”etc. These expressions get a bad rap for being redundant because people in the symbolic language power structure (prescriptivist grammarians, English teachers, journalists, etc.) frown at them—for now. The socially favored tautologies I mentioned last week aren’t syntactically or semantically different from these socially disfavored ones. Many people avoid them just because they don’t want to be thought of as ignorant. But there is really no logic to the acceptance and rejection of certain tautologies.

Having said that, there are some expressions that are grammatically problematic in addition to being tautological. One of such expression is “was a former,” which appears regularly in native-speaker English. In Longman Guide to English Usage, Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut, two leading authorities in English grammar, say the expression is indefensible. “It is illogical to say that any living person was a former anything. Do not write: Our new chairman was the former company secretary. You can say either that he is the former secretary or that he was formerly the secretary.”

The consensus among grammarians seems to be that somebody who “was a former” anything is dead. If he “is a former” something, he is alive but no longer in his previous position.

Double comparatives/superlatives. The most socially disfavored tautologies are the kinds that repeat the degrees of adjectives. Examples: more better, more fatter, more faster, etc. These are called double comparatives because in modern grammar “more” is prefixed to adjectives to express their comparative degree only if the adjectives don’t have the “er” suffix at the end. For instance, we say “more beautiful” because there is no “er” at the end of “beautiful.” But we can’t say “more prettier” because we have already modified “pretty” to express a comparative degree by adding “er” at the end of the word.
 The same logic applies to words that have both “most” and the “est” suffix such as “most fastest,” “most prettiest,” “most nicest,” etc. Those kinds of expressions are called double superlatives because they contain both “most” before and “est” after the adjectives they modify. “Most” is used only for adjectives that don’t admit of “est” when they are in the superlative degree. Note, though, that this is a relatively recent grammatical rule. As you saw last week, in Shakespearean times, double superlatives and comparatives were perfectly legitimate.

Double negatives: Like double comparatives and double superlatives, double negatives are stigmatized in Standard English and are often avoided by educated people. Double negatives occur when you combine two negations in the same sentence, such as saying "I am not giving it to nobody" or "I didn't give him nothing." "Not," "nobody," "didn't" and "nothing" are all negations whose simultaneous appearance in the same sentence has the effect of canceling each other out and producing a weak positive, according to the logic of modern grammar. So "I am not giving it to nobody" should be "I am not giving it to anybody." Else, it would mean the opposite what it probably intended.

It should be noted that the stigmatization of double negatives in Standard English is relatively recent. It was standard in Old and Middle English, and it has survived in many nonstandard native English dialects such as Ebonics ( or Black English) and Southern US English in America and East London and East Anglian dialects in England. 

Neither socially favored nor disfavored
There are other tautologies that fall in the twilight zone between social favor and disfavor. That is, grammarians don’t seem to either explicitly frown at them or approve of them. For instance, meteorologists in England and America habitually talk of “heavy downpour,” which strikes me—and many people—as tautological, but which is not nearly as ridiculed as other expressions in the same category. A downpour is defined as heavy rain, so a heavy downpour is pleonastic. This same is true of “light drizzle.” A drizzle is light rain.

Other expressions that, in my judgment, fall in this category are “short nap” (a nap is a short sleep), “new beginning,” and “young children.” But the last two can be defended. A fresh opportunity to try something that one had failed in is a new beginning, and that makes logical sense. Similarly, young children can be defended as referring to children under the age of 4. Somebody once asked me if the expression “extreme end” is tautologous and my response was that it was defensible. I wrote that from my perspective, “extreme end” isn't redundant “since an ‘end’ is sometimes a continuum, that is, a continuous succession in which no part or portion is distinct or distinguishable from adjacent parts. So, for instance, we might regard the end of colonialism in Nigeria as beginning from the late 50s and ending in the early 60s. We can legitimately say that the extreme end of colonialism in Nigeria is 1960. Extreme end indicates the very last of the continuum.”

Tautologies exclusive to Nigerian English
All the while, I have been discussing tautologies that are present in all varieties of English, including native-speaker varieties. But there are some tautologies that are exclusively Nigerian. I will mention only a few here. The first that comes to mind is “sendoff party.” First, sendoff isn’t an adjective, nor is it an attributive noun. So it can’t be used before a noun. It is itself a noun that means a party for someone who is leaving a place. That means “sendoff party” is both tautological and ungrammatical. There is also “electioneering campaign,” which has assumed idiomatic status in Nigerian English. Although “electioneering” looks like an adjective, it is actually a noun that means political campaign. Like “sendoff,” it can’t properly be used before another noun. It usually stands alone in Standard English. That is, instead of saying “politicians always lie during electioneering campaigns,” it is sufficient to simply say “politicians always lie during electioneering.”

Another popular tautological expression in Nigerian English that I have called attention to in previous article is “free-for-all fight.” A free-for-all is a noisy street fight. Like sendoff and electioneering, it is also a noun that does not modify another noun. But I can understand why many Nigerians think “free-for-all” as an adjective; it looks like a compound modifier, which its’ not.

Concluding thoughts
In all natural languages, tautologies are inevitable. We all commit tautologies either consciously or unconsciously. I am sure I’ve committed quite a few in this write-up. Tautologies sometimes help give clarity to our thoughts. At other times they intensify, reinforce, and accentuate the messages we seek to convey. They can also be used for literary, aesthetic,  stylistic, and humorous effects. Yet, they can be products of laziness and sloppy thinking.

Related Articles

When Democracy Makes No Sense

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

I was writing my reflections on the consequences of the embarrassingly infantile electoral banditry exhibited by Nigeria’s governors during the last Nigerian Governors’ Forum election when it occurred to me that I had written a similar article on April 21, 2007 titled “Is this democracy?” in the wake of the mindlessly rigged governorship election that year.  I am taking the liberty to share the article with my readers. It has been edited for space. Except for the dates and personalities nothing has changed. Enjoy.

I think we need to start seriously questioning some of the taken-for-granted assumptions about democracy. Since the collapse of state socialism in the former USSR and Eastern Europe, “democracy” has emerged as the unchallenged, unquestioned form of government that every nation is either forced to adopt or aspires to emulate voluntarily.

For us in Nigeria, our nightmarish experience with incredibly venal, reactionary, and enfeebling military absolutism has especially made “democracy” an appealing attraction. Predictably, democracy has now become what scholars of rhetorical studies would call a “charismatic term”— that is, an abstract, often meaningless and empty, concept that nonetheless carries the greatest blessing in a culture and that demands sacrifice and obedience.

Today, to be labeled “anti-democratic” is almost worse than being called a murderer. Politicians now confer legitimacy on their actions—and inactions— by invoking the name of “democracy.”

But is this what we bargained for? No serious person in Nigeria contests the fact that the last eight years represent our country’s worst descent into the low-water mark of despair, hopelessness, and misery. We have witnessed the reversal of our time-honored national fortunes by at least 30 years.

It’s anybody’s guess if we can ever recover from this. For instance, when Obasanjo came to power in 1999, Nigeria generated over 3,000 megawatts of electricity. His government actually spent billions of naira to reverse this to about a thousand megawatts today! Our roads are in a worse state than they have ever been since independence. Security is at its lowest ebb. And poverty now prowls proudly and menacingly in most homes to the delight of Obasanjo and his slew of sinister crooks who call themselves “reformers.”

For eight years, a thieving, hypocritical, and incompetent cabal has held our country hostage, viciously raped our resources, traumatized our people, pillaged our patrimony, and murdered our dreams in the name of democracy.

And this same baleful, felonious cabal is entrenching institutional structures to guarantee the intergenerational perpetuation of their criminality and the exclusion of other segments of the society through systematic, state-sponsored vote rigging.

Ordinary Nigerians are cruelly denied even the most basic guarantee of liberal democracy: periodic leadership change through the ballot. Last Saturday, Obasanjo and his gang of criminals in government once again manipulated the governorship and state houses of assembly elections and denied us even the luxury to dream about the future of our country.

The Independent National Electoral Commission, which is anything but independent, announced predetermined election results. Now there is outrage and violence everywhere—and justifiably so. We all know that this Saturday’s presidential and National Assembly elections have already been preset even before they have taken place. Why should anybody go out to vote? For good reason, Nigerians are progressively losing faith in the electoral process and, in fact, in democracy itself.

What is worse, perhaps, is that billions that should have been used to fix our decaying infrastructure and institute basic economic liberties for the masses of our people are being expended on these fraudulent elections. And the last thing on the minds of the beneficiaries of this fraud is the common good of the country. Democracy, for many of them, is merely a gateway for easy personal enrichment.

When I think about this, I can’t help wondering sometimes whether we really need this democracy at this stage of our development. It’s a wasteful, inept system that throws up all kinds of mediocre characters and wily murderers in power. It has become a system that only expands the stealing and killing fields.

Think of the president and his numberless coterie of redundant and unproductive assistants, advisers and hangers-on. Ditto the vice president and the ministers. This thriftlessness is replicated at the state and local government levels. Then you have the absolutely otiose legislators at all levels of government with their strings of even more otiose aides, assistants, advisers and so on, all sustained by scarce national resources that should be invested in education, infrastructural development, agriculture, welfare programs, etc.

And then think of the needless deaths and destruction that accompany all elections. Even our president defined elections as a “do or die” affair. In reality, however, it’s a do AND die affair!

The truth is that democracy, all over the world, has never been the cause of prosperity; it’s always the consequence of prosperity. The United States, Britain, and all other Western countries did not become prosperous because they were democratic; they became democratic after they were prosperous.

Recent examples can be found in the so-called Asian Tigers. The current wave of democratization in the region was preceded by what has been called “developmental dictatorship.”

I know my critique of democracy exposes me to charges of advocating the return of the military. But that’s not my point. I will be the last person to advocate that, even though I believe in my heart that what we currently have is not in any way superior to military absolutism.

If the present system had the capacity to invest Nigerians with the power to change leadership through the ballot box, I would be willing to concede that the system at least has a redeeming feature. But that’s not the case. Like in the military era, we are stuck with the same visionless, unpatriotic, and larcenous cabal, however much we may hate their rotten guts.

Some people think what we need is a patriotic, transaction-oriented, incorruptible, and developmental vanguard of leaders in the mold of a Muhammadu Buhari of old, or a Murtala Muhammed, or even a Ghadaffi.

But this suggestion is fraught with many problems and contradictions. Who will that person be in the Nigeria of today? And, worst still, how will he or she emerge? Through the electoral process that has already been hijacked by Obasanjo and his cronies? Just how?

I honestly don’t know. These are just the rambling discursive gymnastics of a tormented and frustrated deterritorialized mind. But I feel an emotionally purging sensation after writing this.

First published in Weekly Trust of June 8, 2013

Related Post:


There was an error in this gadget


There was an error in this gadget