Last year I learned a wonderful, new-to-me word that has helped me be a better writer and editor. The word is “pleonasm,” and it means “the use of more words than those necessary to denote mere sense.”
Here are a few examples of pleonasms:
• The woman squinted her eyes in the sunlight. What else would she squint but her eyes? Her ears? So instead, I’d say, “The woman squinted in the sunlight.”
• The little boy clapped his hands together. Two pleonasms are present here. First, what would he have clapped but his hands? His kneecaps? And can he clap his hands apart? No? Then the word “together” is not necessary. I would change this sentence to say simply, “The little boy clapped.”
• The man looked down at his feet. If the man’s feet are, say, poking out of his neck, that’s an unusual location and news the reader will want to know. Otherwise, it’s better to omit the word “down” and say, “The man looked at his feet.”
As I’m reading books now, I like to look for pleonasms, and I see them rather frequently. I find characters “looking up at the ceiling.” (Unless there’s been some sort of natural disaster that upends the house, where would the ceiling be but up?) Cookbooks tell me to “mix the ingredients together” rather than simply saying to mix the ingredients. (Mixing them apart would be beyond my skill set.) In business magazine articles, people are often “making plans for the future,” which certainly beats making plans for the past, but I wish these folks would simply make plans.
Did you know the word “pleonasm”? I did not. I knew to look for wording that was redundant, but now that I have another word for “redundancy,” I’m even more aware of ways to trim the fat from writing—my own as well as that of others. And if you spot a new pleonasm, I’d love to see it!