The Grey Lit Café

Wasted words: our antidote to verbosity

May 12, 2023 Anthony Haynes Season 4 Episode 32
The Grey Lit Café
Wasted words: our antidote to verbosity
Show Notes Transcript

Anthony Haynes writes: 'Added bonus'; 'free gift'; 'forward planning'; 'pre-prepared': pleonasms - usages that involve redundant words - are all around us. In this episode, Engy Moussa and I have fun with the English language.
 
We ask:

  • what are the most common pleonasms?
  • what types of pleonasm are there?
  • do pleonasms matter?
  • is pleonasm always a bad thing?
  • how should we respond to pleonasm?

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Reference and allusions

Thomas Gray, 'Elegy written in a country churchyard'.

Our use of 'one-uppersonship' (which we're hoping is a first: OED please note) alludes to Stephen Potter's writing on one-upmanship: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One-upmanship.

The allusion in the title of this episode is to the second stanza of Bob Dylan, 'It's alright, Ma (I'm only bleeding)'. (My rewrite of the text would be 'plays wasted words, proves to warn/ That he not busy thinking is rather sleeping'.)

Credits

Sound production: Bart Hallmark

Music: from Handel's Water Music, courtesy of the United States Marine Band and Marine Chamber Orchestra

Support the show

About the publisher

This episode is published by Frontinus Ltd. We're a communications consultancy that helps organisations and individuals to communicate scientific, professional, and technical content to non-specialist audiences.

We provide

  • consultancy
  • mentoring
  • editing and writing
  • training

and work on presentations, bids and proposals, and publications (for example, reports and papers).

To learn more about services or explore ways of working together, please contact us via our website, http://frontinus.org.uk/.



Speaker 1:

And a warm welcome to the degree that Cafe brought to you by Font Limited.<inaudible> is a communications consultancy focused on engineering infrastructure and sustainability. With you today is Ji Musa political scientist and teaching associate at the University of Cambridge, and I'm very pleased as always to be accompanied by Mr. Anthony Hayes, creative director of<inaudible> greeting, Mr. Anthony

Speaker 2:

Greeting Sji.

Speaker 1:

In our podcast, we focus on the production of different forms of gray literature. Zooming in a little bit, we dedicate this opposite to one aspect of text production, which concerns the language of text in particular, which I'll examine today, a phenomenon called Plain. So, Dr. Anthony, would you mind kindly starting our discussion by explaining to us what is plain? Yeah,

Speaker 2:

Sure, Angie. So it's, um, it's a type of linguistic usage. It's the usage. Aple is the usage of language containing redundancy where you use words or phrases that don't add to the meaning.

Speaker 1:

And could you give us some common examples of this phenomenon to better appreciate the issue?

Speaker 2:

Indeed, there are many very common examples. So I'll, I'll just, I'll just give you a handful at, um, off the top of my head. When someone says that's an added bonus, well a bonus is something that's added. You don't need the word added. Or when a company said offers you a free gift, well, a gift is something that's free. You don't pay for gifts, it wouldn't be a gift. Or they say, ah, yeah, she's a personal friend of mine. What other kind of friend do you have? Um, one that's I've noticed increasingly in recent years is people say never ever, he never ever says that. You mean he never says it. That's what never means. Um, one that I, I know I use sometimes I'm guilty office in my own view. Well, who else's view is it? It's in my view. Mm-hmm. And actually, I think it was Grammarly, one of his, or maybe Microsoft Checker, one of his online things started pointing it out to me that I was using it. Mm-hmm. And um, one, one that I find a bit more subtle but quite irritating is when people are comparing something, uh, A with B and they say they're both the same and you think, well, it would be both of them. Wouldn't you? Wouldn't it like you couldn't have one of them being the same and the other one not being the same, cuz they then they wouldn't be the same. So those are half a dozen or so very common cleans.

Speaker 1:

Oh my God, this is very harsh, professor

Speaker 2:

<laugh>.

Speaker 1:

But, so looking at these examples and other ones that are maybe more recurrent for some of us than others, would you say that there are like various types of plains? In other words, can these examples among others be categorized then?

Speaker 2:

Well, I don't know of any formal taxonomy. I mean, it's possibly that someone, you know, some, um, researcher and linguistics has, has, has done this. Um, but I don't know of any formal taxonomy. Um, but working as an editor, I, I reckon there are, you know, a handful of common types. Okay.

Speaker 1:

So Shelly, can you take us through like them one at a time please? So let's see, what's the first then?

Speaker 2:

Okay, well a common one is to do with abbreviations. Mm-hmm.<affirmative>. So when someone says, can I have your pin number? They mean, can I have your person personal identification number, number UHHUH<affirmative>? Or if you're investing money, at least in the uk and they say, why don't you open an ISR account, that's an individual savings account account. And if a, here's another one that I know I've done. Uh, if you say, why don't you put it in PDF format, the F in PDF stands for format already. So abbreviations commonly, um, bring out plan ASMs.

Speaker 1:

Absolutely. Yeah. No, I, I think I, uh, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Um, and what about the second, then

Speaker 2:

The second one? PLE seems to, seems to be attracted to language to do with the sequencing of actions, the sort of temporal ordering. It, it, um, an example is forward planning. Okay. So, you know, you wouldn't do backwards planning<laugh>, if you could plan backwards, it'd be much more accurate cuz you could do it with hindsight, but actually that wouldn't be planning anymore. Mm-hmm.<affirmative>. So that's what I mean by the sequencing. And, and so this happens a lot with prefixes. Mm-hmm. If you're going for a meal, you say, why don't we pre-book with a restaurant? Well you mean book book a table. If you say, uh, and this, um, this speech is pre-planned, well that's what well it would be, wouldn't it, it wouldn't be post planned. That's, that's rather like the forward planning thing. And then one that I'm hearing increasingly and it sort of jars with me is this is pre-prepared. You mean it's prepared. And for some reason these days when people want you to confirm things, they ask you to reconfirm things. And then there are also, so it's partly to do with prefixes. And the other way in which this sort of, um, sequencing, uh, uh, or temporal order comes out is to do if prepositions, people putting in prepositions, like, um, would you like me to repeat it again? To which I'd say No, it's all right. Just repeat it.<laugh> or sh shall I report back from the conference? No, you could just report from the conference. That's okay. Because report means carry back anyway, that's what we are e bit, uh, of, of, uh, in the phrase report tells you it's carrying it back or if you talk about a building falling down, you say, or being knocked down, you say it's raised to the ground. Well it couldn't be raised to the sky because the word raise RAs at e actually means reduced to ground level anyway.

Speaker 1:

Interesting. Okay. Um, before we move to the third category, I just have a tiny question. Um, particularly kind of using examples. Yeah. Like reconfirm or Yeah, maybe starting with reconfirm. Would you say that that's kind of a word, like a false word or is it more um, like that the people are misusing it?

Speaker 2:

Well, technically there is a need for the word cuz I suppose they might ask you to confirm something and then they might ask you to do it all over again for some reason. And then it would be reconfirmed. So I don't think we can actually kind of prohibit the word itself. It's more of a fact that, you know, the same as repeat again. Maybe you've repeated it once again. So it would be repeating it again. It's more the fact that people are just clumsily using, you know, repeat again, just to mean repeat. That's

Speaker 1:

So to make some people at least feel better once some, some, some people actually use it correctly. Right. So if they have to repeat twice, then that means that they are repeating again for the second time. Okay. Indeed.

Speaker 2:

Okay.

Speaker 1:

Indeed. Cool. Yes. I hope someone will feel better, including myself now.<laugh>

Speaker 2:

<laugh>.

Speaker 1:

Okay. So what about the third category of plane and then

Speaker 2:

This are to do with anthems. So when someone says, um, he's he's not currently available. Well the present tense he is not tells you it's now he's not available. So what does the word currently add? I mean, you can't say he was currently available. I mean it is obviously in the present tense. He's currently available or currently unavailable. Um, actively when people say I'm actively searching for jobs, what would a passive search look like? I mean, I think searching is taking an action, isn't it? So I don't, I don't know the difference. Um, and then I think a similar one is when people say it's completely unique because at least in traditional standard English unique means it, it's one of a kind that that that there's nothing else of its sort. So you can't be a bit unique, you know, you are either unique or you're not unique. So completely doesn't really add anything I would say there. I think the usage is changing because unique always used to mean in traditional standard English, one of a kind, you know, only one of a kind. And I think now it's coming to mean something more like distinctive or unusual. And as that word changes in meaning, the more you actually have to put the word completely.

Speaker 1:

Interesting. Yeah, I think the last point, yeah, this is very powerful. I'm not sure how many of us are consciously doing, like using the word because of this difference of meaning. Yes. Uh, but again, I will give it to the people and try to think that they do that with intention. So again, yeah, we are justified. Okay. Any more, um, types or categories of pluralism we could entertain today? I've

Speaker 2:

Got one category which I call dispersed plem. I mean, most of the examples i I gave you, especially at the start, were very simple ones where you can just knock out one word, like in instead of saying um, added bonus, you just say bonus. Right? But some of them are a bit more subtle than that. They're dispersed across the syntax. And so I would say an example is when someone says, can I ask a question? Well, well we just have asked a question. So actually putting that sentence in, can I ask a question? Doesn't really add anything, you should just ask the question. Some people might disagree with that example and also the way people use phrase, um, phrases or terms such as including and for example and et cetera. So as we're recording this, the football World Cup has just finished. Okay. And I could say a number of teams played very well, including, um, Argentina, France, and Morocco. And that makes perfect sense. And when I say a number of teams played very well, including, I don't mean Argentina, France and Morocco were the only teams that played well. I mean, amongst the teams that played well are those three. But there might be others. But what people now do is they say a number of teams played well, including France, Argentina and Morocco, et cetera, and the word et cetera, you know, Latin et ketra means and others. But that's what the word including tells us in the first place that there could be others. So it doesn't add anything. Or when people say a number of teams play well in the world club, including for example, well that's what the word including is doing the word including is telling us. I'm, I'm gonna give you some examples now. So what, what, what do you add to the meaning by saying for example,

Speaker 1:

Interesting. Okay, going a little bit back. Like what would you, you use instead of Can I ask a question?

Speaker 2:

Just ask a question. You're going to ask, like if you say, can I ask a question? And what you really want to say is, could we close the window please? It's a bit cold. You say, could we close the window please? It's a bit cold.

Speaker 1:

Okay. Would you say that sometimes people do that out of courtesy? Would you still blame them? Yes.

Speaker 2:

Um, well that's why I say some people might disagree with me on that one. Personally, I think all it does is create a bit of fuss and delay things and so just get on with it. But maybe that's my stylistic preference a

Speaker 1:

Bit. Okay. Can I ca on a side note, can I say that that's the outcome of us just, uh, recording you have on productivity and you are kind of very keen on saving times at the moment?

Speaker 2:

Yes.

Speaker 1:

<laugh>?

Speaker 2:

Yes. Uh, because it's often in meetings, isn't it? It's like, can I ask a question? And there are six people sitting around listening to you say, can I ask a question? It's a get on with it. Okay.<laugh><laugh>.

Speaker 1:

Cool. So,

Speaker 2:

But I agree. I mean, I mean it's difficult with some of these to draw a line between what, what's sort of unarguable and what is to do with one's own personal preference.

Speaker 1:

Okay. Yeah, absolutely. And so being now aware of these various types or categories of plans, allow me to zoom out a little bit and ask why should we be concerned about plain? So like, in other words, why does Plains matter? Well,

Speaker 2:

I'm not claiming it's the most important thing in the world. And actually usually when I encounter it and comment on it, it's more a kind of entertainment value. Like people find these things quite, quite funny, really? Mm-hmm. Um, rather than it being a matter of grave concern. But there are a couple of reasons why, why it matters to some extent. Uh, one is simply you're wasting words. Mm-hmm. And with many types of writing and speaking, we value concision. You, I I do a lot of work in engineering, for instance, on, you know, professional and commercial and scientific documents. And generally speaking, in that type of writing, people value concision. So, so if we can lock some wasted words out, that's, that's great. And in particular, often people, um, have a problem with word count. You know, they have to write something like, um, a summary of a bid or something, or an abstract of the paper and they're given a word limit, 150 words or whatever. Well you don't wanna waste any of those words on an unnecessary words. So there it does actually have a practical import. I think the other reason why it matters is it's more like a symbol. In other words, the ple ple isn't a symptom, sorry. In other words, the ple isn't so much causing a problem as indicating as a problem. And that problem is that you are asleep. Mm-hmm. But you're not really being vigilant about your language. You're not really thinking about what you're saying very much. And therefore, um, when you catch yourself using plem, say you are looking at a draft you've written and it's got a number of ple nams in, that's often an indication that you're not at your best. And whe when you are reading someone else in there using a lot of ple nams, you have to kind of start asking yourself how carefully is this person actually thinking? And it might make you sit up a bit and look a bit more critically at what they're, what they're arguing. Okay.

Speaker 1:

Well, so to be fair, these are like c certainly two valid reasons for which creator of great literature should be concerned about pluralism. But I wonder whether plain should almost be considered as a bad thing? I guess so should it, what do you think?

Speaker 2:

No, I don't think it should always be considered a bad thing. Um, I think there are various defenses, if you like. Um, one is emphasis. So I, I gave a word currently earlier. Most of the time it's just a clean on. But when you say he's not currently available, it may be what you're saying is, well, just at the moment, you know, he's just on another call or something, but, but in a moment he'd become available mm-hmm.<affirmative> or he's not currently that at this precise moment, he's not available. But, but, but usually he is, it's that kind of thing. So I think it can be used for emphasis. I think that works better in conversation where you can use your voice, you know, he's not currently available, but mm-hmm.<affirmative>, you can, your tone of voice can, can indicate why you're using the word. I don't, I think it's valid to use the emphasis defense. I don't particularly like defense because people start using that defense all the time. Like, oh, I was just using it for emphasis. Yeah. But actually reconfirm, confirm doesn't need any emphasis, does it? Reconfirm doesn't add useful emphasis to that. So I think people use it as a let out, uh, clause a bit. Mm-hmm.<affirmative>. I think the second, um, justification is when you are, uh, it's for explication it's sort of spelling something out a bit. And I think that can be useful when your, you think your audience might not catch your meaning. So for instance, it may be you are speaking in English and the person you're speaking to is actually not very good at English. So actually putting in a, I mean, I've just done it there. The word actually, which I've just used is, is usually a pluralism. Um, but actually it, uh, it just helps'em out a bit if you put in a few redundant, um, re redundant phrases. So it can help just make things a little bit clearer for your audience. And then I think the one that interests me a lot mm-hmm.<affirmative> is it can be expressive. In other words, it can be used in literature or songwriting or something of that kind to convey a feeling. And my favorite example, there's a very famous poem from the 18th century by Thomas Gray called Allergy written in a Country Churchyard. And I, I think it's a, i I think it's a wonderful piece of writing actually. And it begins like this, the curfew, tolls, fornell of parting day, the lowing her wind slowly overly, the plowman Homewood plots, its weary way and leaves the world to darkness into me now fades a glimmering landscape on the site and all the air a solemn stillness holds. And when you read those lines, they feel pple. Like it feels like there are certain ideas that are being said more than once. It's actually quite difficult to pinpoint exactly where the pple comes. But I, I'll give you an example. The lowing herd wind slowly, overly, well, what he's talking about is a cattle walking, you know, in the path of a curve over, over some grass, and you think, well wind well that has to be done slowly. You can't, you can't have cattle winding manically. That wouldn't be winding then it would be something else. Um, galloping if cattle can gallop, I don't know. When it says the plowman home would plot his weary way somehow plot and weary, he wouldn't plot his energetic way, you know,<laugh> or he wouldn't sprint. We, that's not what you do when you're weary and the curfew toll zella parting day somehow, you know, it's the end of the day there's more than one word that's telling you that day is coming to an end there. And so, um, I, I think there's a degree of plural in that, but I wouldn't take it out because I think actually it, it's, it's like the language is capturing, the language is enacting the feeling that Thomas Gray is trying to convey. So I actually think it's rather expressive, articulate writing.

Speaker 1:

Interesting. Okay. So there are three rectifications so far. So we have emphasis, we have explanation, and we have expressiveness. And I really like the part of the body language, um, note that he made on emphasis. Mm-hmm. I think this is, um, very important since if we are gonna say that it might take us a while to kind of get over plain, then at least we, we could make it seem as if it's intentionally there rather than Yes. Uh, just plain<laugh>. So like, to be fair, like these are actually some good things about plain after all, so, such a relief some of us who might not be up to admit their laziness yet, yet. Um,

Speaker 2:

Well I deliberately, I'll tell you what Angie, um, this, this business of making things clearer, I actually deliberately put in Aple earlier on mm-hmm.<affirmative>. Okay. So you said to me, what is Aple? And I said, it's a use of language containing redundancy. And then I said, it's where words or phrases don't add to meaning. Well, I've just said the same thing twice, haven't I? You know, but that actually, you know, someone listening to a podcast, they might be doing the ironing or driving a car or whatever, and they're not necessarily listening out carefully. So actually saying things paraphrasing might not be such a bad thing.

Speaker 1:

Absolutely. Yeah. So aside from the joke I just said, and like maybe on, on a more serious note, really, and as one I just said really, which I think is plain, but I will let it go, and as one try to reflect on your previous points and hopefully act upon them seriously. So why, why do you think it, it, it is helpful for speakers and or writers to know about?

Speaker 2:

Well, I think it is helpful in editing. Mm. So whether you are editing someone else's book or, or, or your own style, I think it is helpful to notice these things and knock them out because I think it just makes your writing feel a bit more, a bit more succinct. And the a a bit more intelligent, the, the second reason why it helps is actually my favorite reason, which is it, it provided, it's done in a lighthearted way. I think it's, I think it's gonna be using, and it's a kind of, I'm going to use the phrase one up, personship. I, it's possible I'm the first person ever to use that phrase. So, so I'll explain what I mean by that. And that's, uh, I've just done a form of one up, up, up Personship<laugh>. Um, we, we have a traditional phrase in English, which is one upmanship, which is where you do something in order to sort of gain the upper hand and position yourself as in some way superior to the person you're, you are with or the person you're talking to. And obviously that's a traditional phrase, but one upmanship is arguably sexist. So I, I now call it one up personship, but it's when you do something just to gain the upper hand on people. And that's what I say, I, I, I think this is perfectly permissible as long as you do it in a kind of gently um, humorous way. So when people say something like, um, it's an added bonus if you, if you then say, well, I, I've noticed that, you know, a lot of bonuses seem to be added. In fact, I, I can't actually think of a bonus that isn't added. As long as you do that in a, you've got the right kind of relationship and you're doing it a jovial way. I, I I I think that's amusing. I, I, you know, I find that when someone points out aple ASM that I'm using by mistake, I have to laugh at myself. I mean, it's pretty difficult when, when you say they're both the same. And I say, well, I suppose you couldn't really have one, the same one, not the same. You kind have to laugh at yourself. You can't, you can't actually, you can't really defend that really. It's difficult to take offense and say, I demand for right to say that they are both the same and that this gift is free. Mm-hmm.<affirmative><laugh>,

Speaker 1:

To be honest, maybe kind of just to, um, to conclude, um, one thing that I got out of this opposite, like, which is, uh, quite, uh, funny to be honest, is there is like, maybe it's, it's because of your job as an editor and someone who is very engaged with reading and creating of great literature, but there is a level of relationship between us as creator of content and the words that we use. So it's not only you can, it's not something mechanical mm-hmm.<affirmative>, but it's actually like there is an embedded relationship between you and the words that you are using. And I truly felt that, um, in this absolute, uh, when you are picking on these different examples and how you, you perceive them. Uh, so, so yeah. Any final notes we you wish to, to share with us?

Speaker 2:

Well, I'll give you one more tip, Angie, if you want to, if you want to exercise, uh, some one up Personship. I would say it's useful to know of the concept of Plem, cuz you can point out, you know, that um, we don't need to do any forward planning, we can just do some planning, but it's also useful to know the word plem cuz very few people know it. And then you can, when someone says we need to do some forward planning, you can say, well I think that's a ple really, isn't it? And everyone looks at you, they're having a clue what you're talking about<laugh>. And then you can say, um, uh, we don't really need a forward plan. We could just plan and then look very sneak and please yourself.

Speaker 1:

I'm not sure. I will give that a try very soon. I would rather tilt on the side of cautious and humbleness. Uh, but uh, but it sounds funny and I might entertain it one day to be honest. Okay. Thank you very much Dr. Anthony for such an insightful and uh, very, very, um, interesting indeed. Thank you very much,<laugh>.

Speaker 2:

Thank you very much Ji. Thank you.

Speaker 1:

This was Ji Mua with Anthony Haines. Gray LA Cafe is edited by Dr. Bart Hallmark and produced by front Limited front specializes in gray literature forms such as proposals, publications, papers, and reports. Front helps creators of grade literature to achieve high quality professional outputs and to be more productive. To discuss your grade literature needs and to see how front can help, you can contact front via the website front.org uk. There is a link in the show notes. The music is from Handels Water Music courtesy of the United States Marine Band and Marine Chamber Orchestra.

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