What is Pleonasm and How Do We Get Rid of It?

Have you ever written a sentence or a paragraph, read it over, and found that it was entirely too clunky; that the words did not flow harmoniously, causing your message to suffer? One possible reason for your writing’s ailment could be that it has been infected with pleonasm. Pleonasm, I’ve learned, is not some incurable human virus, but a rhetorical device in which an expression uses more words than necessary to convey the intended meaning. Pleonasm is the existence of a redundancy, a pleonasm is a particular instance of it.

Some examples are: “burning fire”, “combine together”, and “ultimate goal.” I’m sure we’ve all fallen victim to writing these redundancies because it’s just so easy! If you need a descriptor for “fire,” of course the first thing that pops into your head is going to be “burning.” And it’s true, fire does burn. But it’s the fact that fire always burns that makes the expression a pleonasm. Unless you’re writing some in-depth guide to the intricacies of fire safety, you probably don’t need to express the fact that the fire is burning, your readers know that it is. Pleonasms are generally harmless, but can get a little annoying to read in their redundancy, so it’s best to eliminate them whenever possible.

Some pleonasms are created by misunderstanding an acronym- like “HIV virus” or “LCD display.” The words “virus” and “display” already exist in the acronym; there’s no need to say “liquid-crystal display display.” Although pleonasms are occasionally hard to catch in our own writing, they’re incredibly easy to fix. It’s these tiny adjustments and eliminations that can bring a sentence from overly clunky to buttery smooth in seconds.

Of course, not all pleonasms must be destroyed. Some can be essential to the style of a sentence. Take this example from Eaters of the Dead by Michael Chrichton:

“All this I saw with my own eyes, and it was the most fearsome sight I ever witnessed…..”

“My own” is a pleonasm. Simply saying “All this I saw with my eyes..” would be enough for the reader to understand that the seeing such a fearsome sight belonged to the narrator. But by saying “All this I saw with my own eyes..” Chrichton emphasizes the fact that the eyes are the narrator’s own without sounding particularly redundant.

Although pleonasms aren’t necessarily always bad, they might just be the thing that’s been ailing that one particular sentence of yours.

Sources/Further Reading:

http://www.gsbe.co.uk/style-clichss-pleonasms-and-verbosity.html#cpv: pleonasms


One thought on “What is Pleonasm and How Do We Get Rid of It?

  1. alivalerio April 23, 2015 / 4:31 am

    I love that there is a term for this, and I don’t think it’s at all surprising. I think understanding rhetorical devices like this one is so important for writers because it makes us more aware of our own writing. My writing tends to be more elaborate than bare, but I’m not sure if I really use pleonasm. I’ll try to keep out an eye out for it from now on. I think your last sentence made a really good point. This term doesn’t necessarily need to have a negative connotation, and using it doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. As long as we’re aware of the rhetorical devices we use in our work and how they will impact our writing, then I think that’s what really matters.


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