Friday, May 9, 2008

It's Just Not Enough!

Something there is in human nature that makes us want to be absolutely sure others have understood what we’ve said. Something there is in our nature that makes us want to add unnecessary bits and pieces to our utterances just to make sure enough attention has been drawn to whatever our point is or because we feel an urge to stress our point. It’s a trait that seems to have always been with us and can be traced back even in writing to the ancient Egyptians.

Although most people don’t realize it, the ancient Egyptians actually had an alphabet, but never woke up to the fact that all they needed were the hieroglyphs that represented individual sounds, just as letters do today. One thing they did was add lots of hieroglyphs that worked together with their alphabetical symbols. Here’s a typical example. The Egyptian word for “beautiful” was nefer. They had a symbol for n (water), a symbol for f (a horned viper), and a symbol for r (an open mouth). They even had symbols for the vowels, but rarely used them, much as we see in Hebrew and Arabic today. So if they’d wanted to, the Egyptians could simply have written nefer, but they didn’t. What they did to make sure nobody would get confused was to add one symbol which, by itself, represented the whole word nefer (a heart and windpipe of a animal) and then repeat the f and the r. They didn’t pronounce it nefer-fer, though; they still just pronounced it nefer! They just didn’t feel right about using only the phonetic glyphs. They had to build in a redundancy to feel sure when writing down words.

I get a real kick out of finding all sorts of redundancies in English that basically satisfy the same need that the ancient Egyptians had. Take, for example, that final –s or –es on the 3rd person singular of verbs in the simple present tense. Why on earth do we need that inflected form? We don’t have any endings on the other persons, singular or plural, so why do we persist in keeping that one inflected ending? It’s a mystery to me, especially because it’s totally redundant. As soon as I say he, she, or it, you know who or what the following verb refers to (he like, she need, it go), so that’s why it’s redundant ― and silly.

I’ve got an idea! Can you recognize some typical redundancies you hear all the time? The thing is, most people don’t realize they’re being redundant when they say these things. Even though most writing teachers would consider their inclusion poor writing style, they’re firmly entrenched in how a great many people speak. So look over each of the following sentences, pick out the redundancy or redundancies, and send in your findings:

  • “Krueger National Park in South Africa is a very unique wild animal reserve.”
  • “The reason why he did it was unclear.”
  • “Make sure you remember your PIN number when you go to use the ATM machine.”
  • “Students from other countries who want to study at American universities will need to achieve a certain score on the TOEFL test.”
  • “Scuba diving in the Bahamas was the most unique experience I’ve ever had.”
  • “Let’s have tuna fish sandwiches for lunch.”
  • “The police were able to prove that the car had been stolen by its VIN number.”
  • “Watch an all new episode of Grey’s Anatomy next Thursday night here on ABC.”
  • “The police were able to return most of the stolen clothes back to the store.”

So how did you do? Did you find them all? Please let me know!

Whatever the reasons, it’s apparent that redundancy plays a role in language to satisfy some deep-seated need to make things clearer or to add an extra “oomph” to them. Whether they actually do or not I’ll leave up to you to decide. I’m looking forward to seeing if you find those silly little extras in the sentences I’ve cited. Happy hunting!


Blogger Sam Simian said...

Here are my guesses (I put the redundant stuff in UPPER CASE), and I added some questions and comments:

1.) “Krueger National Park in South Africa is a VERY unique wild animal reserve.”
I think that “very” is redundant because “unique” is not considered gradable. To a grammarian, “unique” is like the word “pregnant”: that is, you either are pregnant or you are not; there’s no such thing as “very pregnant” or “a little pregnant.” “Very unique” conveys no more information than “unique” alone, so the word “very” is superfluous. However, see number 5.

2.) “THE REASON why he did it was unclear.”

3.) “Make sure you remember your PIN NUMBER when you go to use the ATM MACHINE.”
In case it isn’t clear, I mean “number” and “machine,” not the acronyms. I think that this redundancy exists because people quickly forget (or never learn) what acronyms stand for, so they become words that sometimes need (or seem to need) further qualification. I remember how surprised I was when I learned that LASER and SCUBA, among other words, are actually acronyms.

4.) “Students from other countries who want to study at American universities will need to achieve a certain score on the TOEFL TEST.”
This is another one that’s based on an acronym, isn’t it?

5.) “Scuba diving in the Bahamas was [a] THE MOST unique experience (I’ve ever had).”
See number “1.” However, I am really open to the idea that “unique” can be gradable in at least some situations. For example, imagine the life of Homer Simpson. He has had many unique experiences. To name just three: he has been in space; He has ridden a motorcycle up to the top of a huge dome that covered all of Springfield in order to throw a bomb out of the top — thus saving the city; and he has managed the career of a successful (albeit fledgling) country music star. I wonder which of his many unique experiences he would consider the most unique?

6.) “Let’s have tuna FISH sandwiches for lunch.”
I prefer tuna monkey sandwiches myself. Tuna fish is OK, but it’s too … ummm … fishy, ya know?

7.) “The police were able to prove that the car had been stolen by its VIN NUMBER.”
See numbers “3” and “4.”

8.) “Watch an all new episode of Grey’s Anatomy next Thursday night HERE on ABC.”
I can’t remember the call letters (or call signs) for most TV stations. Can you? Maybe that’s why this redundant English is common. (However, for what it’s worth, most of my ESL students can remember virtually all of them. Go figure.)

9.) “The police were able to return most of the STOLEN clothes back to the store.”

How’d I do?

Sam Simian

May 18, 2008 8:11 AM  
Anonymous Grammar Guy said...

1) Yes, Sam, the redundancy here is in saying "VERY unique." Either something is unique or it isn't since "unique" means one of a kind, not able to be duplicated.

5) I think I'll go out of sequence here since your No. 5 ties in with your No. 1. I see your point and like your examples, but I think your focus is a tad off. It's not that Homer can describe his experiences as more unique or less unique. I think other adjectives, other descriptors are what we should use, ones that are gradable. For example, Homer's most dangerous experience or Homer's funniest experience, etc. rather than Homer's most unique experience.

2) Right again, Sam! Even though many people now accept "the reason why," this redundancy still makes me cringe. "I don't know the reason he did that" or "I don't know why he did that" suffices.

3) Good catches, Sam! Yes, the "N" in PIN means "number," so saying "your PIN number" is really saying "your personal identification number number." And saying "ATM machine" is really saying "automated teller machine machine." YIKES!!

By the way, it's interesting that we sometimes have redundancies we don't even realize we have because they start with loan words from other languages. A case in point is "the Sahara desert." In Arabic, "sahara" means desert. So we're really saying "the desert desert"!

4) Yes, TOEFL is an acronym: "Test of English as a Foreign Language." So you can see why repeating "Test" is redundant.

6) I love your example here! Yep, I find this one particularly odd since we don't say "salmon fish" or "mackerel fish" or "red snapper fish," so why on earth do people say "tuna fish"? As for "cod fish," that falls into the same category as "tuna fish," but perhaps we can defend using "fish" in this case because there's also something called a "cod piece." (I won't go into its purpose here, though.)

7) Yes, Sam, "VIN number" is like "PIN number."

8) Well, you can't win 'em all, Sam. The redundancy here is saying "an all-new episode." Think about it. Isn't that kind of silly? Do they need to say "all"? Can there be a partially new episode?

Almost along the same lines is my all-time favorite: "Filmed before a live audience." I'm sure you get what's funny about this one!

9) Nope. What I was aiming at was "return ... back." If you return something, that means it goes back; you don't have to say "back": "The police were able to return most of the stolen clothes to the store."

I think you did great, Sam! And I really appreciate the time you took to post your comments. Thank you very, very much! (Oops! Is "very, very" redundant?) :)

May 18, 2008 1:21 PM  
Blogger Sam Simian said...

Not Completely Unique ;-)

Dear Grammar Guy,

8.) “Watch an all new episode of Grey’s Anatomy next Thursday night here on ABC.”

With the possible exception of #5, I agree with what you wrote. However, is it possible that #8 has two redundancies: “all” and “on ABC”? Isn’t “on ABC” an appositive, and aren’t all appositives necessarily redundant? Appositives do serve a role — and perhaps redundancy does, too, but I don’t think that there is any possible ambiguity as to what “here” means. If you’re going to be merciless about removing redundancy, I think that you could remove either “here” or “on ABC.” If I were forced to do so, I’d remove “on ABC” and reword it: “Watch an all new episode of Grey’s Anatomy here next Thursday.”

Also, although what you wrote is usually true — “Can there be a partially new episode?” — there may be exceptions. You didn’t happen to be a “Seinfeld” fan, did you? Would you say that the last episode was completely new? And while “best of shows” like this are only a small percentage of any series, they are hardly unique. Well OK, perhaps they are more unique than completely new shows, but they aren’t completely unique ;-).


May 18, 2008 3:33 PM  
Anonymous Grammar Guy said...

Hi again, Sam!

Sorry that you don't see my point about "unique" and how other descriptors would work much better than this one in describing/comparing Homer's experiences. I really don't think that "unique" is gradable or that it should be used with an intensifier like "very." Oh, well ...

On the other issue, your No. 8, I'm afraid I can't agree with you in saying that appositives are redundant. In fact, I just used an appositive above when I clarified what "the other issue" is. That wasn't a redundancy; it was a clarification.

Let's look at this dialogue:

A: Milt, would you come here, please?
B: Sure, Bertha. Where are you?
A: I'm in the kitchen.

When Bertha answers Milt's question, she's clarifying what she meant when she said "here." She isn't being redundant. If the conversation were to go as follows, "in the kitchen" would still be a clarification, not a redundancy:

A: Milt, would you come here, please?
B: Sure, Bertha, where are you?
A: I'm here in the kitchen.

That's basically what they're saying in that ABC promotion: "here on ABC" clarifies where "here" is, but I don't think it's a redundancy.

Thanks for this stimulating discussion, Sam!


May 18, 2008 7:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't think about the acronyms! Interesting. I did learn that in Hawaiian, Ahi means tuna so when a restaurant lists Ahi Tuna as their special of the day, that too is redundant. It would be fun to someday see Ahi Tuna Fish listed on a menu...

May 24, 2008 4:49 AM  
Anonymous Grammar Guy said...

Thanks for the great belly laugh you just gave me, "Anonymous"! That would be a double whammy for sure! :)


May 24, 2008 9:44 PM  

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