A sharp-eyed reader named Tom sends examples from the media of what he calls the “sophomoric redundancy” of the phrasing “potentially dangerous.” He points to potentially dangerous natural gas levels, potentially dangerous levels of a fungicide in orange juice, even a potentially dangerous bit of choreography.
Tom correctly argues that “potentially dangerous” seems to conflate the concepts of “possibly dangerous” and “potentially harmful.” Said another way, potential is the very essence of dangerous, which means having the capacity for harm not yet inflicted. It’s both odd and gratuitous to pair words with the same essential meaning.
Careful writers and editors are especially wary of the redundant. Not all redundancies are as slippery as “potentially dangerous,” however. Some are ham-fisted repetitions, and all we have to do to fix them is the obvious: delete the repetition. Strip true from “true fact,” for example, free from “free gift,” sum from “sum total …”
New recruit, dead body, current incumbent, 12 noon, closed fist, past history.
Why do careful writers and editors strike those words? Because they know that all recruits are new. They know a discovered body is dead, or we don’t call it a body. They know incumbent means currently in office; noon always occurs at 12; all fists are closed, or they’re not fists; and all history is past, or it’s not history.
Thoughtful writers and editors likewise reach for their editing pen when they read such structures as “thought to myself.” Or blinked our eyes, shrugged our shoulders, nodded our heads, set a new record, 7 a.m. in the morning, past experience, or from whence.
They know that the only way we think is to ourselves. They know the only blinkable body part is the eye, the only part we shrug is the shoulder, and the only part we nod is the head. Therefore: We thought, or blinked, or shrugged, or nodded. They know that all record-setting sets new records, that 7 a.m. in the morning means “7 in the morning in the morning,” that all experience, like history, is past, and that “whence” means “from which place,” making “from whence” redundant.
Careful writers and editors are also on the lookout for such redundancies as ATM machine, PIN or VIN number, or HIV virus. That’s because ATM stands for automated teller machine, so “ATM machine” is saying “ATM machine machine.” In the same way, PIN or VIN stands for personal or vehicle identification number, so “PIN or VIN number” is saying “PIN or VIN number number.” HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus — therefore, “HIV virus” is saying “human immunodeficiency virus virus.”
The expression “using civilians (or men, women, children, villagers, prisoners, etc.) as human shields” is a common but odd redundancy — because civilians, men, women, children, villagers, prisoners, etc., are in all events human and would therefore always be human shields. A more thoughtful construct might be something like: “They said government soldiers used Aleppo citizens as shields during the battle.”
Another linguistic oddity from 2016 qualifies for both euphemism and redundancy. Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte repeatedly dismissed as an “overexaggeration” his false claim that he’d been held up at gunpoint in Rio. If “exaggerate” means to overstate, embellish, inflate or stretch the truth, what would “overexaggerate” mean, exactly?
In fact, Lochte was not merely “overexaggerating.” He was lying. He was never held up at gunpoint — which he himself finally admitted and which the press should have unflinchingly brought to both his and the readers’ attention. Instead, many reporters adopted Lochte’s phrasing, thereby seeming to help him whitewash his lie.
Coinages such as “overexaggeration” show that the prefix “over” bears watching because it can create not only vagueness and inflation, but also redundancy. The expression “overcrowded,” for example: How crowded does a room have to be before it becomes “overcrowded”? When the people in the room are crushed or suffocated?
The take-home message from the “Department of Redundancy Department” is that redundancy never strengthens or enriches expression because unwitting repetition is imprecise and empty by nature. Of course there’s such a thing as intentional or stylistic repetition, but that’s entirely different from inadvertent repetition. Stylistic purpose aside, saying it as well as it can be said means never having to say it twice.