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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...

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.

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