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Striking the Surplus from Tautologies (Follow-Up 1)

A newsletter article in late April addressed the matter of the tautology (also known as a pleonasm), the “needless repetition of an idea, statement, or word.” We provided several such examples of overweight phrases and suggested how to trim them back into shape.

Several readers responded in defense of certain phrases, sharing that what seemed to be a modifier repeating a noun’s meaning was in fact integral to communicative clarity.

The phrases receiving the most feedback deserve further review to support a wider understanding of why the careful writer will work to tighten them.

Today and next week we’ll address the top three. We’ll begin with the phrase receiving the most comments:

Contested Tautology #1: Vast Majority

Many readers felt the adjective vast is needed for the concept of far more than half of a group. According to several, majority alone could mean 51 percent, a slim majority. Without vast, the reader might not realize the majority was much greater, perhaps 90 percent.

To explore the issue further, we’ll first look at common definitions of majority from two popular sources:

1. the greater part or number; the number larger than half the total (opposed to minority).
2. a number of voters or votes, jurors, or others in agreement, constituting more than half of the total number.
3. the amount by which the greater number, as of votes, surpasses the remainder (distinguished from plurality).

3 a: a number or percentage equaling more than half of a total (a majority of voters, a two-thirds majority); b: the excess of a majority over the remainder of the total (margin won by a majority of 10 votes); c: the greater quantity or share (the majority of the time).

At the outset, advocating for either slim or vast to convey the degree of a majority seems reasonable. At the same time, we want to reinforce our mission to be careful, attentive writers and grammarians. This involves being specific to avoid varying interpretations.

To that aim, we’ll ask ourselves what a vast majority is. To some, it could be 67 percent; to others, 73 percent; and to yet others, perhaps the most justified, 92 percent.

Conversely, a slim majority could be perceived as 59 percent, 62 percent, or, among the most justified, 51 percent.

Rather than write "The bill passed by a slim majority," write "The bill barely passed with 52 percent of the vote." Rather than write "A vast majority of stockholders believe company leadership should change," write "Eighty-three percent of stockholders believe company leadership should change" or "More than three-fourths of stockholders . . ." Such specifics serve your readers (or listeners) to a greater effect.

The noun phrase can still be classified as a tautology depending on how the definition of majority is being applied. However, we also expand the matter to be one of precision (as opposed to solely an instance of a repetitive noun and modifier).

We put forth that potentially tautological phrases such as slim majority and vast majority are acceptable in writing if they are supported by information that specifies what the slim or vast majority is—e.g., charts, graphs, percentage numbers in text.

Next week we’ll revisit the tautologies identical match and invited guest.

Because of the e-newsletter’s large readership, please submit your comments or questions regarding today's (or any past) article through GrammarBook.com’s Grammar Blog

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