An abridged version of a classic Maine farmer joke:
Tourist pulls over to the side of the road where a farmer is lifting a pig into a tree, moving him around so he can eat the nuts on the branches. Tourist: “Why don’t you get a stick and knock the nuts to the ground, so the pig can eat them there? Wouldn’t that save a lot of time?” Farmer pauses, then says: “Ayeh.” Another pause. “But what’s time to a pig?”
I often think of this joke when I read, as I frequently do, editors and others complain about redundancy in writing. Don’t get me wrong. The contents of the Department of Redundancy Department can be laughably barmy, as in these images that have made the rounds on the Internet:
But a lot of the carping you see is about less egregious repetition. The esteemed and estimable Baltimore Sun editor John McIntyre complained on Facebook not long ago about the formulations “end goal,” “safe haven,” and “close scrutiny” crossing his desk. He advocates losing a word and gaining conciseness, ending with goal, haven, and scrutiny. But I would defend the two-word versions. There can be such a thing as an intermediate goal. Haven, by itself, is rather vague; knowing that a particular haven in also safe is significant. Close scrutiny is the clumsiest of the three, but I find nothing very objectionable about the emphasis added by the adjective. Even end up, like a lot of such phrasal verbs (wake up, hurry up, listen up), is stronger than the up-less version.
A few years ago, a novelist and blogger named Lisa Binion wrote a post about redundancy, saying “we need to cut it out of our writing.” She started alphabetically listed offending expressions, starting with absolutely certain.
Absolutely means totally and definitely. If something is certain, it will definitely happen.
I am absolutely certain the party is at 7 p.m.
I am certain the party is at 7 p.m.
She covered advance warning, cacophony of sound, cash money, circle around, cease and desist, close proximity, and compete with each other:
When you compete with someone, you are in a contest with him/her to see who can do the best.
Jordan and Micah will compete with each other in the race.
Jordan and Micah will compete in the race.
Then she ceased and desisted.
I would categorize most of the expressions targeted by Lisa Binion and John McIntyre as emphatic redundancies. If you are among the most mindful writers, you tend to avoid them. Sharpshooting them in your own or someone else’s prose can be a moderately satisfying pastime, like picking little pieces of lint off a sweater, or unitalicizing the commas after each book title in a list. But they really don’t hurt anyone, and there are so many worse writing problems, like vagueness, incorrect word choice, and word repetition. Moreover, they fly by so swiftly that they aren’t truly wasting a reader’s time. Even if they are, what’s time to a pig?
My favorite emphatic redundancy was written by the Beat poet Lew Welch. He had a day job as a copywriter at an ad agency. According to a story told by his biographer, Aram Saroyan, he had to create a slogan for one of their clients, a maker of household insecticides. If the line he finally came up with had been rendered unredundant, it would be prosaic, dull, forgettable. With the redundancy intact, it was genius. The slogan was:
RAID KILLS BUGS DEAD