Monday, August 20, 2018


Under the rubric “Lapses,” let me start with two flagrantly poor specimens of usage, which I find particularly painful. Both are exemplars of redundancy: excess verbiage that can and should be jettisoned. It comes in two forms: both as pleonasm, which involves two adjacent, duplicating words of which abuse television is particularly fond, though it crops up everywhere, as in “old crone” (as if there were such a thing as a young crone), and more extendedly  as in a couple of tautologies I will cite.

Consider the abject “the reason is because,” where a simple “because” would do, although “the reason is (that)” is also possible. Take “if young men stutter confronted with a gorgeous woman, the reason is that they can’t control their libido” or “it is because they can’t control their libido,” but not, redundantly, both, as in “the reason is because they can’t” etc. Yet you get this obvious tautology surrounding you like the Cheyennes George Custer.

Now take an even more common and equally egregious tautology of which television is especially culpable, though you get it all over the place, spoken and written by perhaps even you (Et tu Brute): “cannot help but.” Thus “I cannot help but think otherwise” etc. or “we cannot help but commit the sins of our fathers.” Correct would be “I cannot but think” or “I cannot help thinking,” but not both. Yet even in the most prestigious publications you will find this solecism pullulating.

Now you may say, “What does it matter? People will understand you either way.” But it does matter. People will understand it if after a meal of beans you should fart in public—perhaps even overlook it—but that does not make it all right. Correct speech, like correct dress, may be a dying nicety, but people of taste will cling to it and reward you with their esteem if you practice it. Correct speech is an integral part of correct behavior.

However, people nowadays (please not “in this day and age”) can’t help it: they don’t know any better; our education, if it exists at all, has failed them, as even their parents, already undereducated, failed them. I have taught in some very good—well, pretty good—institutions and encountered consistent ignorance. I wonder what goes on at my alma mater, Harvard, these days: are they upholding the standards even there? But just try to correct people, however gently and uncondescendingly, as I suggested in my book Paradigms Lost, and see how they would resent it. As well might you suggest that they use deodorant or zip up their flies. And heaven help you if the person you ever so politely corrected is black or Latino—the most indignant opprobrium would fall upon you with the dead weight of political correctness, which rather outweighs the proverbial ton of bricks.

But hardly anyone would even think of correcting your “old crone” or the horribly pleonastic “free gift,” with which any number of businesses try to lure you into their clutches. It never occurs to them that “gift” is quite enough, yet, sad to say, they may have a point: “free” is a magic word, hard to resist. And as far as upbringing goes, do not expect to see many mouths covered during a yawn. There are inconsistencies, though: “old geezer“ appears to be less frequent than “old crone.” This has to do with geezer being a less well known word than crone, less often heard (partly because it lacks that seductive assonance) and thus considered less guilty of pleonasm.

Which brings me to euphony.  A good deal of redundancy has to do with the appeal of the sound. I wonder whether the pleonastic “telltale evidence” would have escaped, aside from legalistic bombast, without those alliterative Ts. As English is a rather monosyllabic language, a polysyllable has its converse charm. So “today’s youth,” as it were a single word, rolls off the tongue more sonorously than mere “youth” to the listening ear. And then there is repetition, such as “When, oh when?”
which sounds too good for objection. Ditto “Live and let live!” despite its triple alliteration. Rhetoric and oratory thrive on all kinds of redundancy. At other times, redundancy is based on simple ignorance. Thus “from whence” thrives because speakers are not sufficiently familiar with “whence” to realize that it is a synonym for “from where.”

Ignorance can be gross and inexcusable as in the ubiquitous “parameters,” which sprouts everywhere like the weed it is. It is a term in computer science or mathematics, where it makes an esoteric sense unknown to most of us. But having a prestigious scientific aura, it comes across as sophisticated or learned, and thrives however inappropriate. “Limits,” “boundaries,” or “guidelines,” as Bryan Garner points out, would obviate it very nicely.

“Vogue words,” is the term for a fashionable word or phrase, which might be all right in moderation, but grates through often mindless repetition. These words may fade out of existence, but not before their overuse has become offensive. Take, today, “resonate.” This has a certain euphoniousness but a very few years ago things like  “sounds persuasive” or “are widely credited or credible,” or “elicit consent” did the job. Now the air redounds with “resonate” and “resonant” in suffocating proliferation. Or so it would seem. The end is a catchphrase or cliché. To be sure there is no way of measuring quantity of usage or determining exactly when much is overmuch. But a consensus among the intelligentsia may tacitly exist. Aren’t you tired of  “gamechanging” and “lifechanging” experiences, when in fact nothing changes very much?

Let me point out a couple of useful books, as well as anything by Bryan Garner, notably Garner’s Modern English Usage. They are a Dictionary of Cliches by Nigel Rees and  A Dictionary of Catch Phrases by Eric Partridge. To our shame, both authors are British, even though the latter book was published in America. The former comprises some thousand entries, the latter some three thousand. Let me adduce one of the shorter ones from each.

From Rees: “Happy couple. General use, referring to a pair about to be or just joined in matrimony. Known by 1753. A cliché by 1900.’There were cards and good luck messages for the happy couple’ said the insider. But now they don’t look so good, we’re getting phone calls blaming Des for everything again. Daily Mirror (14 January 1995} About 40 friends and family joined the happy couple at the church. Daily Record (28 January 1995). Similarly, Happy Pair. The phrase was known by 1633. And in the specifically marital sense by 1697. Also cliche by 1900.”
From Partridge: “ ‘at this moment in time’ was being used to a nauseating extent in 1974—as indeed it is still—and Verner Noble, writing on 11 September 1974, remarks  ‘As you know, it’s become a cliché. But I now find that its use is considered so ridiculous by the more sensitive kind of people that it is coming into their conversation sarcastically as a catch phrase. It is one of those American importations that had a use for emphasis but has outstayed its welcome. John W. Clark has noted that the cliché ‘at that point in time’ was very frequently used during the Watergate hearings.”

So there you have it. I would like to think that if you are not already one of “the more sensitive kind of people,” this blog post might help induce you to endeavor to become one. I would very much like to welcome you into the club.