Tag Archives: redundancy

An English Teacher Falls to the Floor

I’ve been waiting to write about something that comes up frequently in my writing group. The problem was that I couldn’t come up with a good example. I finally found one in a gardening column I was typing for my husband.

Charlie was writing about resurrection plants that dry up and look dead – sometimes for years – until a rain shower revives them. One plant in this category – Selaginella lepidophylla, aka “spikemoss” – has an even more remarkable quality. Here’s what my husband wrote about it. Notice anything?

Interestingly, even wholly dead specimens uncurl when moistened because the cells responsible for rehydration continue to expand after death.

I had doubts about that “wholly dead” – but before I could say anything, Charlie raised the point himself. “Dead is an absolute term,” he said. “You can’t be wholly dead, can you?” (In fact I just raised that point in a recent post.)

My thoughts exactly. But after we talked about it for a couple of minutes, we agreed that “wholly” should say in. Why? Because he wanted to emphasize that he was talking about plants that really, really, really were dead.

It’s an issue that comes up all the time in my writing group. Rules are rules, aren’t they? Don’t good writers have to follow them 24/7?

Instead of giving a direct answer, I usually raise another question: Which came first, rules or language?

The answer – of course – is that language came first. Rules were an attempt to pass on what good writers were doing so that the rest of us could follow in their footsteps.

My standard advice is to write the problematic sentence both ways – following the rules and breaking them. Then set the sentence aside. After some time has passed, read both versions and decide which one feels better. Use it without apology. If someone raises an objection, say – loudly – I like it this way.

(I always picture an English teacher falling over dead when I say this. Sorry!)

I’m going to leave that unfortunate English teacher lying on the floor (in the spirit of this “resurrection” post, I’ll bring her back to life in a minute). I want to explain why I voted for “wholly dead.”

Every book of writing advice ever written urges writers to aim for brevity. “Omit needless words!” is the solemn advice from Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style. William Zinsser’s On Writing Well has a whole chapter about avoiding verbal clutter.

The problem with this sensible advice is that it sometimes clashes with other essential writing principles: Be emphatic. Be clear. Sometimes an apparently unnecessary word can be useful and should stay in. Our language is full of redundancies (the lofty term is “overdetermination”). They’re so much a part of our everyday lives that we never notice them.

Take a look at this sentence:

He takes his car to the dealership for an oil change twice a year.

How many times does this sentence tell you he’s male? Not once but twice: He/His.

And how many times does it tell you that we’re talking about just one person? Three times! He/takes/his.

Everyday communication usually takes place in less-than-perfect surroundings. The TV is on, an ambulance siren is blasting, other people are talking. But even if you miss big chunks of a conversation, you’re likely to know exactly what was said: The redundancy in our language ensures that you won’t miss anything important.

(Surprising fact: Much of this research was done by telephone companies. Their studies showed that static and interference don’t cause problems with most phone conversations. The redundancy built into our English language has saved phone companies from wasting a lot of money on unnecessary upgrades.)

Let’s bring that English teacher back to life and talk about Charlie’s column. He wanted to make sure his readers got the point: Even a dead-as-a-doornail spikemoss specimen can revive – slightly, for just a few moments – when it’s given some water. How do you show that you’re no longer talking about the specimens that lie dormant for years and dramatically spring back to life?

That two-syllable word does the job nicely: Wholly dead. Nobody is going to miss the point – even if the kids are squabbling in the background, the microwave is beeping, and the dog is barking.

Spikemoss is amazing. So is our language!

Selaginella lepidophylla - the common name is "spikemoss"

Selaginella lepidophylla – the common name is “spikemoss”

 


 

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In Praise of Wordiness

Earlier this week I warned you about unnecessary and repetitious words (whispered softly, ran quickly, a smile on his face). You don’t want empty spaces in your writing. Stimulate your readers and pique their interest by making every word interesting.

But sometimes longer is better: Wordiness can be an effective choice. Good writers know that there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all rule for every writing situation.

More-is-better is a useful principle when:

  • You’re trying to create a mood or an atmosphere
  • You’re giving unwelcome news (for example, saying “no” to a customer’s or employee’s request)
  • You’re explaining something complex
  • You’re emphasizing a point that readers might miss

Here’s one example of useful redundancy: The close of a paragraph. Let’s say you’ve just described the warmth and love you experienced in your grandmother’s kitchen as a child. You’ve said it all: The cinnamon in the air, the purring of her cat, the teakettle whistling on her stove, the songs she used to hum when she was making her famous chicken and dumplings. What’s left to say? Nothing – but if you’re an exceptional writer, you’ll wrap up the paragraph with one more sentence. Here are three possibilities:

  • I was happy there.
  • I wish I could go back.
  • Nothing was ever the same after she died.

There’s a grace and ease about a few extra words in just the right place. Don’t be afraid to take a little longer to say exactly what you want your readers to know. The results will be worth the effort.

(Did you notice that last sentence? Not really necessary, but it added a little finesse to what I’d written. At least I hope it did.)

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Please RSVP

 I enjoy reading “Miss Manners,” an etiquette column in our local newspaper. (Her real name is Judith Martin.) Although I don’t always agree with her advice, her column is provocative and entertaining.

But this week Miss Manners wandered away from table manners to make a pronouncement about English. She holds a degree in English from Wellesley College, so she’s entitled to do that. But I found her reasoning faulty.

A reader complained about receiving invitations that included the request to “please RSVP.” The reader noted that RSVP (literally “respond, if you please” in French) already includes the word “please” and is therefore redundant. Would it be permissible for her to give a quick French lesson to the friends who issue the invitations?

Miss Manners thought not. But she did issue a request for readers to use the English language, not French, when issuing an invitation: “Please respond” or “The favor of a response is requested” would be better than the French RSVP.

Whoa. If we were to banish every French word from English, we would lose thousands of useful words. And I’m not just talking about obvious imports like “champagne,” “souffle,” and “saute.” We’d have to get rid of every -tion word (“election,” for example). And there are countless others that came from directly from French to English.

It’s true that Miss Manners’ suggested response doesn’t employ any French words. But “Please respond” is a Latin derivative, and so is the word “requested.” If we wanted to get rid of every Latin word, we’d really be in a pickle. (That sentence I just wrote is almost 100% English, but the rest of this post is replete with imported words. I don’t think I could write without them.)

Miss Manners’ campaign for English rather than French reminds me of the people who want us to install only native plants in our landscape. (My husband, a garden writer, runs into this kind of thinking all the time.) Crape myrtles, my favorite shrubs, aren’t native. They come from Japan. But they’re perfectly suited for Central Florida, where we live. In addition to the gorgeous blossoms, crape myrtles display attractive bark. They are pest resistant, drought resistant, and disease resistant. And they’re not invasive. Who cares about their ancestry?

Back to the French vs. English argument. (“Versus” is a Latin word, incidentally.) English usage is not based on historical principles, and logic isn’t useful either. The sole criterion is whether your target audience is comfortable with the word or expression in question.

Based on that reasoning, RSVP is in. Now, you could argue that “The favor of a response is requested” is more elegant. I’m with you. Or you could say that “Please respond” is more friendly than those four letters from the alphabet. I’m still with you.

But skip the specious reasoning, s’il vous plaît. Merci! (Maybe I should restate that: Skip the specious reasoning, please. Thanks!)

RSVP Dollar ok

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