Watching out for Reiterations: Eliminating Redundancy in Your Writing

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Ah, Groundhog Day—my favorite movie. Let’s celebrate Bill Murray’s thousand-something February 2nds in Punxsutawney, PA by talking about redundancy. Redundancy in writing is when you reiterate a repetitive expression or when you repeat a reiteration, which is to say that you said it more than once and in more than one way. (Ha!)

Did you catch those? Of course you did. I don’t claim perfection in this area. A look back at my articles would surely show that I use redundant language often. However, I do try. I like to write long, wordy sentences, but I know my reader doesn’t always wish to read them, so I try to limit my messages to the essentials. That said, I fully admit to hypocrisy.

There are many, many redundant expressions that are common. After you read this article, I guarantee you will see them everywhere—in the media, in your favorite books, in emails from friends and coworkers, in work communications, and in marketing materials. I do not think it’s possible to eliminate them all, but in your writing, being able to spot redundancies can make your writing stronger, clearer, shorter, and fresher.

Here are a few examples of redundant expressions as pointed out by a few of my favorite sources:

Grammar Girl

According to my favorite guru, Mignon Fogarty (a.k.a. Grammar Girl), redundancy is

a subspecies of wordiness.

Here are a few of her least favorite redundant expressions culled from her book Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing and an article on her website called “Are You Annoyingly Redundant?”. (Note: I use my own examples, but borrow ideas from her book and website. Same goes for the other sources mentioned.)

The Reason is Because

The word because implies that you are talking about the reason. To use both words is to doubly explain your motives. Removing one or both of these words can make your sentence much better. Take these examples:

  • The reason I went to the store is because I wanted to buy new shoes. (Redundant.)
  • The reason I went to the store is that I wanted to buy new shoes. (Better, but still wordy, and you only replaced because with that.)
  • I went to the store because I wanted to buy new shoes. (Better yet.)
  • I went to the store to buy new shoes. (Best. Although, if  this statement is in response to someone asking why you went to the store, then the third example might be the best.)

Past History and Past Experience

Gosh, I feel like I’ve seen either one of these expressions on every job ad I’ve ever answered, and there have been many. Both history and experience are defined as being in the past. In the case of experience, if you are talking about current times or future times, it’s fine to add modifiers to specify that. For instance:

I hope my future experience in this industry is better than my past.

Future Plans

Take what I said in the last section and reverse it.

Whether or Not

Grammar Girl takes this common expression to task claiming that the or not is a bunch of fluff. Consider this sentence:

Fred couldn’t decide whether or not to order the stuffed duck.

It would be much better to omit the or not and simply say:

Fred couldn’t decide whether to order the stuffed duck.

Personally, I don’t think it’s terrible to add an or not to the end of the second example since he could be deciding to order the duck or not to order the duck. If someone has an opinion on that, I’m sure they will share it. The or not is extraneous, but I don’t think it’s redundant.

Reiterate Again

Seems like the word iterate isn’t used very often, but the word reiterate is used all the time. Iterate means to repeat, so re-iterate means to re-repeat. To reiterate again is to re-re-repeat. It’s because of words like this one that people get so annoyed by redundant expressions.

ATM Machine, HIV Virus, RSVP Please, PIN Number

It’s easy to find examples of these extended abbreviations in many common acronyms (and, yes, initialisms, you know-it-alls). The M in ATM stands for machine, so there’s no need to add the word to the end. The V in HIV stands for virus. The P in RSVP stands for plaît which is French for please. The N in PIN stands for number. You get the idea.

Extend an Invitation

The word invite is sufficient, unless you are talking about literally handing a card with the invitation on it to a person thus extending your arm with the invitation in it. I think I see this used most often in scenarios in which a person is asking to invite someone who was not invited in the first place. In this case, it might seem to make sense, but really, all you need is the word invite. It encompasses all.

Oxford Dictionaries

The next examples come from the blog on the Oxford Dictionaries site.

Absolutely, Completely, Totally, Exact, Very

Not only are these adverbs and adjectives overused and ubiquitous (haha), but because they get used in redundant phrases so frequently, they have lost much of their impact. When someone says my car was completely totaled, they are just exaggerating to impress you. Totaled implies completeness. If you say something is absolutely necessary, you are just belaboring the point, as necessary has absoluteness built into the definition. Same goes for duplicates which are, by definition, exactly like each other. And something that is unique is different than everything else, so there is no need to hyperbolize by adding very.

This site also has a great example of a paragraph written with 18 common redundancies. Here are a few you might be guilty of using:

  • different varieties
  • decorative garnishes
  • 12 noon
  • free gift
  • close personal friend
  • future prospects
  • pair of twins
  • annoying pests
  • difficult dilemmas
  • intense fury
  • suddenly exploded
  • may possibly
  • unexpected surprise

Strunk & White

Amazingly, I could not find a long diatribe in this skinny, silver book on redundancy in general. (The book to which I am referring is The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White.)  I did not, however, reread the thing from cover to cover, so maybe it’s hidden in the discussion of some other peeve. Anyhow, this book does contain some comments on word usage that point out redundancies.

He is a man who

This is a great example of wordy language that has no purpose but to take up more space on a page. (Take note, college students, we know you do that.) When you read this, it’s like the writer has to first state an obvious fact before getting to the point. Yes, he is a man, so? Cut the a  and who and just use the verb directly:

He is ________________.

Currently

This adverb adds little value to a sentence. Assuming the verbs are conjugated in the present tense, then the addition of currently does nothing. If emphasizing timing is necessary, Strunk & White suggest you be precise and use at this moment instead. Thus:

The police officers are currently interviewing the suspect.

should be

The police officers are at this moment interviewing the suspect.

In my opinion, I would leave both of them out, the verb in present tense is enough information for me.

Character

S & W point out that writers often use this noun “as a mere habit of wordiness” in such expressions as:

actions of an aggressive character

It should be simply:

aggressive acts

As to whether/as yet

Just whether or just yet.

The Little, Brown Compact Handbook, 5th Ed.

My trusted LBCH reminds us that

unnecessary repetition weakens sentences.

A few common phrases that they point out are:

  • circle around
  • consensus of opinion
  • cooperate together
  • final completion
  • important essentials or basic essentials
  • puzzling in nature
  • surrounding circumstances

I hope I don’t have to explain any of those. I know I am guilty of at least a couple.

Last, but not least

(Is that a redundant expression or just an annoying one?) There is a ridiculously long list of redundant expressions that I found on About.com. Here are a just a few, in alphabetical order:

A F O
(actual) facts (face) mask off (of)
(advance) preview (frozen) tundra (old) adage
(advance) reservations full (to capacity)  (oral) conversation
(advance) warning (full) satisfaction (originally) created
add (an additional) fuse (together) output (out of)
(added) bonus G (over) exaggerate
(all-time) record gather (together) over (with)
(armed) gunman (general) public (overused) cliche
(artificial) prosthesis H P
assemble (together) had done (previously) palm (of the hand)
B (harmful) injuries (passing) fad
bald(-headed) (head) honcho plunge (down)
best (ever) I (polar) opposites
blend (together) (illustrated) drawing postpone (until later)
bouquet (of flowers) incredible (to believe) proceed (ahead)
(brief) summary indicted (on a charge) protest (against)
(burning) embers input (into) pursue (after)
C integrate (together) R
cameo (appearance) interdependent (on each other) raise (up)
cash (money) introduced (for the first time) re-elect (for another term)
(closed) fist J reflect (back)
collaborate (together) join (together) (regular) routine
commute (back and forth) (joint) collaboration S
compete (with each other) K (safe) haven
(component) parts kneel (down) shiny (in appearance)
(constantly) maintained (knowledgeable) experts (single) unit
could (possibly) L sole (of the foot)
D lag (behind) spliced (together)
 (desirable) benefits later (time)  (still) persists
(different) kinds lift (up) T
disappear (from sight)  (live) studio audience tall (in height)
drop (down)  (local) residents tuna (fish)
during (the course of) look back (in retrospect)  (two equal) halves
dwindle (down) M U
E (major) breakthrough (ultimate) goal
earlier (in time) manually (by hand) (underground) subway
eliminate (altogether) meet (together) (universal) panacea
emergency (situation) (mental) telepathy (unnamed) anonymous
(empty) hole merge (together) (usual) custom
empty (out) mix (together) V
(empty) space  (mutual) cooperation vacillate (back and forth)
 (end) result N visible (to the eye)
enter (in) nape (of the neck) W
(entirely) eliminate (native) habitat (wall) mural
evolve (over time) never (before) warn (in advance)
(exact) same none (at all) weather (conditions)
extradite (back) nostalgia (for the past) (white) snow
  (now) pending write (down)

 There, that should get you started.

Please feel free to list all the ones I miss in the comments section below.

Image of The Elements of Style (4th Edition)
Author: William Strunk, E. B. White
Price: $6.55
Publisher: Longman (1999)
Binding: Hardcover, 128 pages
Taylor Houston

Column by Taylor Houston

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer and volunteers on the marketing committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education. She has a BA in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College and attended Penn State's MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. She has taught writing at all levels from middle school to college to adult, and she is the creator of Writer’s Cramp, a class for adults who just want to write!

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Comments

eirikodin's picture
eirikodin from Auburn, NY is reading Mediterranean Caper by Clive Cussler February 1, 2013 - 9:52am

The list you end the article with will be helpful.

Leif

bmartin2009's picture
bmartin2009 from St. Paul, Minnesota is reading Dune February 1, 2013 - 12:05pm

Very useful overall, but I take issue with a few of the items on the list at the end.  "Natural Habitat," for example, seems fine to me in the right circumstances.  According to the completely peer-reviewed and highly respected website Wiktionary.org, "habitat" can mean "A specific place or natural conditions in which a plant or animal lives."  If you're talking about a species that has been relocated, or even a community of that species, "habitat" could refer to either one of those: the current place it lives, or its natural conditions.  In that case, "natural habitat" would indicate you're talking about the latter.

I know it's not your list, and it's just a nitpick, but I think it's good to keep an "it depends" attitude with a lot of these rules.

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Portland, Oregon is reading 'The Warehouse' by Rob Hart February 4, 2013 - 3:16pm

I agree, bmartin2009, it can depend. What I am trying to say is that many of these expressions are used frequently and without thought to what it they really mean. If you use one of these expressions with intention and awareness, then it's fine.

Thanks for reading. And being nitpicky is totally fine. I do it all the time.

Chris Johnson's picture
Chris Johnson from Burlington NC is reading The Proud Highway February 4, 2013 - 8:10am

Yes, by all means, avoid redundancy in your writing, but people talk this way. All the time. Someone lying could go over the top by trying to convince someone they really did something when they didn't.

         "The reason I went to the store is because I wanted to buy new shoes."

This statement sounds like a teenager trying to sell a shit bill of goods. Someone else may want your vacuum cleaner, but not I.

Please keep in mind that hard-and-fast rules are only okay when giving guidance, and the only ironclad rule in English I've ever noticed that couldn't be tampered with or proven wrong is how very is always an adverb. Everything else is up for grabs, and there is no stable ground with the English language, but that quality itself is what lends to it being such an elaborate, poetic, musical language, a joy to behold.

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Portland, Oregon is reading 'The Warehouse' by Rob Hart February 4, 2013 - 3:22pm

Of course, Chris. That is the whole reason I write these columns--because I love language! I think people get confused about the rules, and rely on what they hear. Colloquialisms are fine, but they crop up in written work too often. 

 

Besides, this column is hardly about rules. It's about realizing the meanings of words and making every word count.