On needless and unnecessary words

I had a very nice idea for today’s post. Then I wrote it up and decided it wasn’t such a nice idea after all, so I trashed it. I had just decided I’m not going to post anything when the universe came to my rescue.

The wife asked me how to spell “colleague” (in our home my roles include being a dictionary and encyclopedia along with chauffeur, dishwasher and financial manager). That reminded me of one of my pet peeves as far as language is concerned.

And like a sign from the South African Broadcasting Corporation, just at that moment on the television the theme song of that great British comedy, Mind Your Language, started to play.

I’m not one to disregard signs, so here’s a quick language rant.

Time and again, while reading blogs here on WordPress.com, I come across people, most of them college graduates, most of them with degrees in English, referring to their “work colleagues”. I have to tell you, this one makes me cringe more than all the homophone confusion on all the internet. In fact, it propels me into a full-blown conniption.

“What’s wrong with ‘work colleagues’?” I hear you ask? “Colleagues” means “the people with whom you work”. If you say “work colleagues” you’re essentially saying, “the people at work with whom I work”.  Dreadful, isn’t it?

In linguistics, aberrations like these are known as tautology, that is, needless repetition of unnecessary words, ideas or statements (bonus point if you spotted what I did there).  Other examples include round circles (so we don’t get confused with the square ones), straight lines (a line is defined as the shortest distance between two points so can only ever be straight; the squiggly ones are called squiggles, not squiggly lines), dead corpses (unless, of course, the zombie apocalypse has finally arrived), and dishonest politicians (are you telling me there’s another kind?).

I consider tautology, like homophone confusion, a mark of either ignorance or carelessness, and something that should be avoided.  Writers especially need to be on the lookout for these little bastards.  They sneak up on you like sneaky little sneaker-uppers.

Another person who despises unnecessary words is stand-up poet, Tim Clare.  He goes at them with a straight-razor every week.  It’s very entertaining.  You should go check out Death Of 1000 Cuts on his blog.  He also has his first novel, The Honours, coming out next year.  The little that’s been revealed is intriguing.  If he writes half as good well as he criticizes it’s going to be great.

That is all.

13 thoughts on “On needless and unnecessary words

  1. This was interesting! It will make for an interesting bit of trivia, and now I can’t wait to go around correcting people with my new found knowledge. I never really use the word colleague/colleagues so I can at least breathe a sigh of relief knowing I have never fallen into this specific trap, other tautology (tautologies?) however, I’m sure I have probably crucified over the years!

    1. We’re all guilty of these 🙂 The problem is so many of them are in common use, people don’t even notice it. I can still let it slide (within limits) if people use them in speech, but in writing it’s inexcusable. It’s one of the basics one should look out for while re-reading a draft.

  2. I agree. I think acronym tautologies like ‘HIV virus’ or ‘LASER light’ come about because people forget what the acronym originally stood for. Not a lot of excuse though…

    1. “HIV virus” is also a good one, but that reminds me of another peeve: when people say HIV/Aids as if the two are interchangeable, while in reality the acronyms refer to two related, but completely different phenomena, one a virus and one a syndrome. It should be “HIV and Aids”. However, I think only people who’ve had formal training in HIV and Aids education, care and counselling have this particular hang-up.

  3. Half as well. I can’t help myself. Writes half as well. Why would you do that to me at the end of a perfectly good grammar rant??!

    Irregardless is apparently a word now, and it gives me hives. ATM Machine? PIN Number? Die in a fire.

    I am occasionally victimized by tautologies marching in the name of rhetoric. And, erm, I stumbled over you via a random wordpress tag search for kindred souls.

    1. What’s wrong with half as well? I’m really asking here. Always ready to learn.

      YES! I can add another: do you remember back when NCIS was called Navy NCIS? I almost stopped watching the show right there.

      Glad you stumbled in here. Feel free to drop by again.

      P.S. I’m going to have to penalise you for that double question mark-exclamation combo. What were you thinking? 😉

    2. Oh my goodness! Never mind. I just spotted it. My sincere apologies. I always seem to manage a horrific slip-up like that in the last paragraph whenever I write about grammar. Perhaps that is yet another sign.

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