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Between Useless and Useful Tautologies in English (I)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. The inspiration for this week’s column is supplied by a discussion that was started some weeks ago by a memb...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

The inspiration for this week’s column is supplied by a discussion that was started some weeks ago by a member of my Facebook fan club. The member wanted to know if tautologies, that is, pointless repetition of words, are grammatical errors. He gave two examples of what he considered tautologies: “to quote someone verbatim” and “he was my former student.”

 He thought “to quote verbatim” is tautologous because to “quote” is—or is supposed to be— to repeat something exactly as it is said, and “verbatim” is synonymous with “word for word.” The sentence “he was my former student” can also be said be tautologous because both “was” and “former” perform the same function in the sentence: show that the "student" in the sentence is no longer the writer’s student.

In my preliminary contribution to the discussion, I pointed out that English has two kinds of tautologies: socially favored tautologies and socially disfavored tautologies. That was my inflated way of saying there are useless tautologies and there are useful tautologies in English. I am aware that to talk of a “useful tautology” is a contradiction in terms since a tautology is by definition a useless repetition.

However, English, like all languages, is suffused with tautologies, which linguists call by different names. Some call them “reduplication” if they are limited to single words. (Intriguingly, the term “reduplication” is itself tautologous). Others call them “cloning” or “doubling.” Still others call them “pleonasm,” especially if they involve several words in a sentence. For instance, Nigerian Pidgin English, like many Nigerian languages, uses reduplication to create plural forms of nouns and for emphasis. Examples are “sand sand” for lots of sand, “yanfu-yanfu” for plenty, “well well” for really well, etc. English has similar reduplicatives for emphasis such so-so, bye-bye, night-night, no-no, war-war, jaw-jaw (remember Winston Churchill’s famous saying: “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war"?), etc.

But English has many more nuanced, less obvious tautologies than the morphological reduplications stated above. In this week’s column I’ll distinguish between socially favored tautologies and socially disfavored tautologies—and tautologies that straddle the two extremes. But, first, I want to point out that tautologies are not necessarily grammatical errors. In fact, it is only in late modern English— which I periodize as starting from the 1800s to the present—that grammarians frown at tautologies. In old, middle, and early modern English, tautology was not only perfectly acceptable; it was a favorite stylistic indulgence of great writers. That was why William Shakespeare could write “This was the most unkindest cut of all” without offending the grammatical sensibilities of the grammar Nazis of his time—because, well, it wasn’t an error. You can also see the surviving remnants of tautologies from old English in many contemporary English idioms, some of which I identify below.

Socially favored tautologies
So what are the socially favored tautologies in English that most grammarians approve of— or at least don’t rail against? I have identified at least five types. They are pleonastic idiomatic expressions, emphatic reflexive pronouns, legal doublets and triplets, hendiadys, and tautological place names or tautonyms.

Pleonastic idiomatic expressions. There are many tautologous expressions in English that have been handed down to us from the dim and distant past and that command social prestige. You can’t change the lexical structure of such expressions however much you may resent redundancies in speech and writing.  Examples are “again and again,” “over and above,”  “above and beyond,” “come one, come all,” “one and only,” “safe haven” (a haven is a safe, protected zone), “each and every one,” “over and over again,” “close proximity,” etc.

In this category, you also have fossilized phrases that are tautologous but that native speakers use widely. The first time I heard Americans say “free gift” I was confounded.  Isn’t a gift by nature free? Who pays for a gift? Well, I later learned that the phrase became necessary because deceptive advertising often promises “gifts” on condition that the potential beneficiary fulfills certain financial obligations first. So a free gift is a gift with no hidden motives and with no strings attached.

 I’ve also heard educated native English speakers talk about “whole entire” things and wonder if “whole” has a different meaning from “entire.” Other conventional phrases that seem needlessly repetitive but that enjoy social prestige in native-speaker English varieties are “reason why” (which the Oxford English Dictionary says is perfectly correct and has been in respectable use in English since 1719), “burn down” (who burns up?), “down south” (isn’t the south by nature down?), “up north” (the north is always up), “exact same,” etc.

I was tempted to include “quote verbatim” here but hesitated because it’s actually not a tautology. In journalism, we have different kinds of quotes, among them partial quotes, redacted, polished, or cleaned quotes, and verbatim quotes. A partial quote only reproduces a few words in the exact order they are uttered by the speaker while the rest of the phrase or sentence is made up of paraphrases from the writer or broadcaster. A redacted quote is cleaned for grammatical or stylistic errors but still presented as if it were the exact words of the speaker. Most memoirs that insert quotation marks around conversations and dialogues supposedly recalled from several years back are often not verbatim; they are usually the writer’s recollections, which have no lexical fidelity to the original words being quoted. A verbatim quote is the unvarnished words of a speaker.  This is a useful distinction that shouldn’t be lost because of the need to avoid redundancies.

Similarly, to “republish verbatim” isn’t tautologous because it is possible to—and people do indeed— republish with minor or major editing.

Emphatic reflexive pronouns. Reflexive pronouns are the kinds of pronouns that are formed by the addition of the suffix “self” to pronouns. Examples are “myself,” “herself,” “himself,” “yourself,” etc. Grammarians talk of emphatic reflexive pronouns when you combine ordinary pronouns with reflexive pronouns such as “I myself,” “he himself,” “we ourselves,” “they themselves,” “you yourself,” etc. People with insufficient familiarity with the rules of English grammar mistake emphatic reflexive pronouns for tautologies at best and grammatical errors at worst. But emphatic reflexive pronouns are perfectly correct expressions that perform a vital function: they put emphasis on pronouns.

Legal doublets/ triplets. Legal doublets are pairs of words used in legalese, that is, the distinctive English usage of lawyers. Examples are “alter and change,” “terms and conditions,” “null and void,” “aid and abet,” “all and sundry,” “part and parcel,” “will and testament,” “cease and desist,” “true and correct,” “furnish and supply,” etc. Legal triplets are sets of three words that mean exactly the same thing and often co-occur in sentences. Examples are “cancel, annul and set aside,” “name, constitute and appoint,” “rest, residue and remainder,” etc.

Although many legal doublets have entered mainstream, idiomatic English usage (such as the expressions “null and void, “terms and conditions,” “part and parcel,” etc.) people who are not familiar with the stylistic singularities of legalese dismiss them as pleonastic. But lawyers defend their doublets and triplets by saying they are deliberate, emphatic expressions rather than tautologies.

Hendiadys. A hendiadys (pronounced hen-dai-adis) is stylistic device, very much like a doublet, that expresses ideas through two similar words conjoined by the word “and.” Popular English hendiadys, which are also idioms, are “in this day and age,”  “ruined and broken,” and “wrack and ruin.” These expressions appear tautologous on the surface but they achieve what linguists call semantic intensification, that is, they add more force to the meanings they convey.

Tautological place names or tautonyms. Many place names are repetitive (thus tautonyms) because they are derived from two different, mutually unintelligible languages. Most rivers in America, for instance, are named after Native American names that translate as “river” in English, such as “Mississippi River.” In Algonquian, a Native American language, Mississippi means “big river.” That means “Mississippi River” translates as “Big River River.”

 Two major examples tautonyms from Nigeria are Lake Chad and Lagos Lagoon. Chad is the corruption of tsade, a Kanuri word for lake. So when we say Lake Chad we are actually saying “Lake lake.” Similarly, “Lagos” is the Portuguese word for lakes or lagoons, meaning that “Lagos Lagoon” actually means “lagoon lagoon." But these tautonyms are entirely defensible because they help us achieve clarity.

To be concluded next week

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