Grammar Pleonasms Are a Bit Much |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Pleonasms Are a Bit Much

The term pleonasm comes from pleonazein, a Greek word that means “more than enough.” When you use a pleonasm, you are repeating yourself.

The jolly man was happy is a pleonasm: The man was happy says the same thing without the unnecessary addition of “jolly.”

Serious writers want to make their point with a minimum of fuss and clutter. Nothing says fuss and clutter like an ill-advised pleonasm, which can come across as long-winded, pompous, ignorant, laughable, or any combination thereof.

Some pleonasms are obvious (true fact, free gift), others are less noticeable (pick and choose, young boy). They hide in our writing, then jump out and jeer at us for not catching them when we had the chance.

Here is a selection of pleonasms from a variety of sources:

PIN number  PIN is an acronym for “personal identification number.” So a PIN number is a personal identification number number.

“Woman arrested after verbal argument”  The creator of this headline forgot that all arguments are verbal.

“GED graduation begins with unexpected surprise”  Is it a surprise if it’s expected?

“Tips from a self-confessed project management nerd”  Too bad the author of this post wasn’t also a language nerd: self-confessed is a classic pleonasm.

“I’m trying to decide whether or not someone’s worth dating”  Delete “or not” and you’ve said the same thing.

“So blind he can’t see”  This is a line from “Drink Up and Go Home,” a country song from the fifties. It’s supposed to be poignant, but the pleonasm is a distraction.

“I’m told you are a very clever genius”  Attributed to Samuel Goldwyn, American movie mogul (1879-1974).

Some pleonasms are used intentionally, for emphasis. An exasperated mother tells her unruly child, “Never, ever do that again!” Few parents would second-guess that “ever.” A jilted lover writes to his sweetheart that she has left him “utterly devastated.” The poor man is swept up in the trauma and drama of rejection. Who would be so peevish as to inform him that, technically, “devastated” by itself gets the point across?

In A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage Cornelia and Bergen Evans defend purposeful pleonasms: “A man who never said an unnecessary word would say very little during a long life and would not be pleasant company … In writing, as in conversation, an economical use of words is not always what we want.”

However, we think the Evanses would agree that a mindless redundancy is not ever what we want.


Pop Quiz

The sentences below contain pleonasms. Which words or phrases could be removed with no change in meaning? (Example: the word true in true fact is superfluous.) Our answers are below.

  1. Too late the soldiers realized that they were surrounded on all sides.
  2. Randy wore a big smile on his face.
  3. When we saw the final results, we were all in shock.
  4. We were given a grand tour of the capitol building.
  5. Rachelle has been appointed to the post of director of information.


Pop Quiz Answers

  1. on all sides
  2. on his face
  3. final
  4. building
  5. to the post of

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

21 responses to “Pleonasms Are a Bit Much”

  1. Chad says:

    If all arguments are verbal, what is the best way to describe a confrontational exchange that occurs in writing (letter, email, text message, or social media)?

  2. Wayne G. says:

    I’m wondering whether you intentionally included these pleonasms in your post:

    On “jolly” – The man was happy says the same thing without the unnecessary addition of “jolly.”
    Isn’t “unnecessary” a pleonasm?

    On ordering your book – Have You Ordered Your Copy Yet?
    Isn’t “Yet” a pleonasm?

    • There are necessary additions as well as unnecessary ones, so, no, “unnecessary” was not a pleonasm.

      As for using “yet” in the ad, maybe you have a point, but did you read the quote from the Evanses in our article?

  3. Karen G. says:

    What about close proximity? Ubiquitous.

  4. Debbie S. says:

    I have to disagree with some of these pleonasms. For instance, verbal in my mind has always indicated “spoken rather than written.” Now that I look it up in Webster, I see that there are other definitions which do not specify that meaning. However, I think many people are like me in believing that verbal indicates spoken.

    I can attest to MANY instances of written arguments, thanks to the terror of texting, Facebook messaging, etc.

    • Good for you—you remembered item 5, “Always look it up,” from our first article of the new year: Resolutions for Word Nerds. That settles it: verbal means “relating to words.” Anyone who declares in formal writing that verbal can only mean “spoken” is going to be butting heads with an army of English sticklers.

  5. David B. says:

    Another pleonasm we hear occasionally: “she had a new baby.” We never hear that a woman had an old baby.

  6. Sheela J. says:

    It’s a good thing you don’t live in India, you’d be facing a pleonasm every other hour. I’ve begun to wait for your mails, just to see what I’ll learn next.

  7. Cathy H. says:

    In the Pop Quiz section of this newsletter, in sentence #4, I am not so sure that you should remove the word “building.” Couldn’t capitol also refer to the capitol “city”?

  8. Marlane L. says:

    Love your newsletter, however I am challenging you on the pleonasm you presented in today’s edition:

    “Woman arrested after verbal argument” The creator of this headline forgot that all arguments are verbal.

    Is it true that all arguments are verbal? In this age of alternative communication means, isn’t it possible the woman could have been engaged in a heated non-verbal argument?

    The dictionary lists possible non-verbal “arguments”:

    3. a process of reasoning; series of reasons:
    I couldn’t follow his argument.
    4. a statement, reason, or fact for or against a point:
    This is a strong argument in favor of her theory.
    5. an address or composition intended to convince or persuade; persuasive discourse.
    6. subject matter; theme:
    The central argument of his paper was presented

    So, while I take exception to your statement that all arguments are verbal, I would be inclined to believe that a woman wouldn’t be “arrested” for a non-verbal argument (at least in this country).

    Keep the good stuff coming,

    • We are going by the generally accepted definition of verbal such as can be found in The American Heritage Dictionary: “Of, relating to, or associated with words.” This dictionary defines nonverbal as 1. Being other than verbal: nonverbal communication 2. Involving little use of language: a nonverbal intelligence test.

  9. Kirubanidhi says:

    Excellent replies to common doubts that arise in the minds of so many non-native English speakers. After a few weeks, I am back to your wonderful newsletter.

  10. Kirubanidhi says:

    In the heading for this write-up, “pleonasms” is spelt as “pleonisms”. Is that okay?

  11. Neetamoni Borah says:


    My query is regarding Verbal arguments.

    Verbal is anything that consists words. For that matter anything that we write is also verbal.

    my understanding says that pleonasm for argument would be oral.

    Let’s see for example, “Verbal instructions are easier to remember as compared to the written ones.”
    Here, verbal would be wrong because all instructions in words, hence, oral instructions suits best.

    Please correct me if I am wrong.

    • Regarding verbal argument, please see our response to Marlane L. of January 29, 2016. Merriam-Webster online gives the example “verbal instructions” as acceptable usage.

    • marti penn says:

      I think “oral instructions” IS a clearer phrase than “verbal instructions.”

  12. John Christie says:

    Two other pleonasms….
    …..surrounding circumstances….
    ….utmost good faith…. (there can surely be no degrees of good faith)

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