June 18, 2004

Repeating repeatedly

Repeating something is not the same as repeating it repeatedly, though it may be stylistically unwise to say so explicitly:

(link) I am aware that people need to vent, but these many long letters that are repeated repeatedly are too much.

Even when a modifier seems to be genuinely redundant, it may still add something, if only emphasis:

(link) A broad analysis should clarify clearly what these partners and organizations are able and willing to contribute to the European standardization process.
(link) Form questions in order to clarify clearly a problem, topic, or issue.
(link) At least they knew, the point that he made was that the ordinance as it was drawn up, did not clarify clearly what the changes actually were that they were being asked to vote on.

People who write clarify clearly are setting themselves up to be ridiculed, certainly -- but why? It's understood that Chinese languages have changed over the past couple of millennia by adding redundant modifiers, whether to reduce ambiguity or to add emphasis or just for the fun of it, and no one ridicules the Chinese for this.

I have to admit that it's often hard to swallow the results of a similar impulse in English. Since specify is often used to mean nothing more than "say" or "explain" or "list", it's natural to want to add something when you want to specify that a statement, explanation or list needs to be explicit and complete:

(link) We also specify specifically that it contains text data.
(link) Some union contracts, company personnel policies or group health care contracts may specify specifically how long an insured worker or other disabled person is entitled to have group health coverage in the event they are not actually on the job and working.
(link) A request by a School District employee for a release of rights to copyrightable material shall be directed to the Superintendent of the School District, shall be in writing, and shall specify specifically the material for which the release is requested, preferably by submitting two copies of such material with the request.

Natural, but imprudent -- if plain old specify is not specific enough, it would be better to write "explain specifically" or "list specifically" or even "specify explicitly."

I have less sympathy for those who write interact interactively -- what are these people trying to say, I wonder? Has plain interact become bleached to the point where it just means "communicate" or "access" or "use"?

(link) TUG's target is to create a network of people who live and interact interactively.
(link) Development of multiresolution data structures for effective representation of terrain and city models, as well as development of technology to visualise and interact interactively with 3 D-terrain and city models on mobile computers.
(link) Note that the buyer role could also be implemented using a web server, so buyers could interact interactively with “Beautiful Flowers Wholesale” via their web page.

The logic of redundancy can be subtle, but superficial stringwise repetition is striking and easy to ridicule.

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 18, 2004 06:27 AM