When it comes to English usage, informed writers are watchful about special cases. They can be traps for the unwary, or opportunities to enhance expression. Or they can be simply fun with words. This page gives you an example of each:
- The pleonasm (also tautology), which should be avoided;
- The oxymoron, which, if used creatively and correctly, can help a writer enrich the way he or she makes a point;
- The palindrome, which is almost always just a plaything, not a serious tool for expressive writing; however, it is interesting, and something all good writers should know about.
You may never study these phenomena in school, but they illustrate the rich variability of language and thought, at least to someone who speaks his or her language with the brain engaged.
Pleonasms and Tautologies
A pleonasm is a word or phrase that uses more words than necessary. It is a special kind of verbosity. In serious writing, it is important to avoid them, as they reflect poorly on the writer, casting him or her as someone trying to add ballast to weak or shifty prose. Spotting them is an enjoyable sport for many. Here are several examples. The redundancies in these pleonasms should be obvious:
|sudden impulse||all impulses are sudden|
|free gift||all gifts are free|
|boat marina||marinas by definition moor boats|
|fellow colleague||a colleague is on the same side as you are|
|exact replica||replicas are exact copies|
|necessary essentials||if not essential, not necessary|
|mass exodus||an exodus is a departure of a great number|
|completely destroyed||destruction is always complete|
|foreign imports||all imports come from foreign places|
|temper tantrum||a tantrum is a fit of temper|
|coequals||equals need no "co-" designation|
|honest truth||if not honest, it isn't truth|
|warn you in advance||can't warn anyone after the fact|
|future plans||plans are always for the future|
|over-exaggerate||exaggeration implies excessive description|
|common bond||bonds only apply to two or more in common|
|new innovation or initiative||all innovations and initiatives are new|
|sum total||totals are sums|
|extra bonus||bonuses are extra|
|nape of the neck||only necks have napes|
|false pretense||all pretenses are false|
|frozen tundra||all tundra is frozen|
|gnashing of teeth||gnashing means grinding of teeth|
|head honcho||a honcho is the head, the leader|
|veer off course||veering, by definition, runs you off course|
|safe haven||havens, by definition, are safe|
|tuna fish||all tuna are fish|
|evening sunset||all sunsets come in the evening|
|close proximity||proximity means closeness|
Related to the pleonasm is the rhetorical tautology. Text is tautological if a concept is repeated in it, using different words. For example, in “Take a Pew,” one of the routines in Beyond the Fringe, Alan Bennett says: “Perhaps I can paraphrase that; that is, say the same thing in a different way” (from The Complete Beyond the Fringe (1993) edited by Roger Wilmut). His very utterance is not only an example of a tautology, it is the definition of one. (Distinguish the rhetorical tautology from the logical tautology, useful in mathematics: a statement which, by virtue of its logical form or the words employed, must be true, as in “x = x”.)
Here are some more examples of rhetorical tautologies:
|He’s a beginner who has just started.|
|I will attend personally.|
|Joe made it for his mom with his own hands.|
|I saw it with my own eyes|
|I will give your suggestion top priority.|
|Let us visit the dilapidated (or destroyed) ruins.|
|The building was totally and completely uninhabitable.|
|Let me give you an abbreviated summary of the plan.|
|She made predictions about the future.|
|Arizona contains some dry desert.|
|In my opinion, I think it will rain today.|
|The hurricane made landfall at 5 a.m. in the morning.|
|Children, take turns, one after the other.|
|A college degree is a necessary requirement for graduate school.|
|His photo was taken at the summit on the top of Mount Lincoln.|
|James was the victim of bad misfortune.|
|Kimmy is a brown-haired brunette.|
|His Spanish was adequate enough for ordering tacos.|
|Mark Twain published an autobiography of his own life.|
|Please prepay in advance for the tickets.|
Be careful, too, about acronyms (letter abbreviations). They can spawn tautologies, too. For example:
|DVD disk||the second “d” stands for “disk”|
|GPS system||the “s” stands for “system"|
|PIN number||the “n” stands for “number”|
|Please R.S.V.P.||the “svp” is French for “please” – “s’il vous plait”|
|RAM memory||the “m” stands for “memory”|
|UPC code||the "c" stands for code|
|VIN number||the "n" stands for number|
Unlike pleonasms and tautologies, which add unneeded description or specification to a term, oxymorons provide detail that at first glance appears to conflict with the concept being mentioned. In short, an oxymoron is an expression that appears to contradict itself.
The Greek roots are “oxy-“ meaning sharp, pointed or (by extension) smart; and “-moron” meaning soft, dull (and by extension) stupid. Thus, the word is autological – it is itself an illustration of the very situation that it defines. Incidentally, the correct plural of “oxymoron” is “oxymora,” but that has fallen so far out of use that we must concede that it is acceptable to give them their English “s” instead.
Strictly speaking, the contradiction in an oxymoron should be merely apparent, but not actual. This creates a sense of intellectual tension in the reader, who then must resolve the underlying meaning in the figure of speech. In this regard, it is much like a metaphor, which makes sense only once the reader can draw the parallel that the author had intended between two disparate thoughts.
A common example of a true oxymoron comes from one of George Carlin’s well-known comedic routines: jumbo shrimp. He asks, “Big shrimp, or little jumbo?” A more literary example is Hamlet’s plan to feign insanity: “I must be cruel only to be kind.” Recall the famous line from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: In Act II, Scene 2, Juliet says to Romeo, “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”
Another classic collection of oxymorons is found in the first few lines of A Tale of Two Cities. This introduction uses these phrases as figures of speech, clearly for literary effect:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair . . .
In the poem, “My Heart Leaps Up,” William Wordsworth expressed his belief that we are born in harmony with nature, but then lose touch with it as we age. He said, “The child is the father of the man.”
The essence of a true oxymoron is that there must be some resolution, some logic, behind the seeming conflict of terms. Thus, the oxymoron gives us a chance for an insight by calling upon us to solve what seems to be a contradiction. We are asked to discover the poetical or figurative sense of the statement that reconciles the conflict and reveals a truth.
For example, in the Wordsworth quote — “the child is the father of the man” — the resolution is this: He believed that we inherently know much of nature before we are born, but then we lose it as we age, as the world corrupts the purity of our natural state. This reverses the usual course of maturation. It is knowledge of nature that Wordsworth valued, not worldly know-how. (He wrote, “One impulse from a vernal wood may teach you more of man, Of moral evil and of good, than all the sages can.” (from “The Tables Turned”).)
Another example comes from Paradise Lost, in which Milton describes the underworld, to which Lucifer fell. He called it “darkness visible.” There is no light in Hell (as light is synonymous with God, and Hell is defined by the absence of God), but (somehow) its occupants could find their way around. (This example is even more interesting when one considers that the poet himself was blind.)
Three categories of faux oxymorons or “almost-oxymorons” can be identified:
First, real contradictions are not oxymorons; they are nonsense. For example, being literal and describing the day as cold and hot creates a real contradiction. It is not a figure of speech; it is meaningless prose. Context will tell whether the contradiction is only apparent (and hence may carry an additional meaning in its resolution), or merely a meaningless combination of contradictory words.
Second, some authorities use the term “opinion oxymoron” or “rhetorical oxymoron” to describe a contradiction not created by a clash of fact or definition, but rather by a person’s opinion or point of view. Thus, it is often reduced to being a snide remark or one-line joke and not a proper figure of speech. An example of an opinion oxymoron comes from George Carlin’s comedy routine mentioned above: “military intelligence.” This cannot be seen as an apparent contradiction unless one adopts a certain opinion about the military. “Legal ethics” is another such expression. An opinion oxymoron is more like a miniature editorial than figurative usage.
Third, there is a category generically called “dead figures of speech.” Their usage has become so commonplace that modern speakers no longer even see them as figurative language. In the metaphor department, “falling in love” is a good example, as is “kick the bucket.” Consider “awful good,” “good grief,” and “barely clothed.” They are not oxymorons because evolved usage has wiped out what might have been, years ago, a sense of contradiction. “Civil war” is not an oxymoron, as “civil” is a different lexical usage from the one that would produce a contradiction. In the same vein, the word “preposterous” means absurd. Its Latin origin is “prae-“ (before) and “-posterus” (coming after). It has been used in English for hundreds of years without any conscious appreciation that it is an oxymoron, with the result that the contradiction it contains has become invisible to moderns.
Thus, as a technical matter, we can exclude real contradictions, opinion oxymorons and dead oxymorons. Even so, we still have a large and rich bounty of this figure of speech in English.
Contradictions in terms other than oxymorons do exist. Consider these three types:
Antinomy (an-TIN-oh-me). This one is tough. It can easily sweep you into college-level philosophy and mathematics if you’re not careful. Antinomy is the description of a contradiction between two statements or rules that seem equally plausible or equally proven. (Do not confuse it with “Antimony,” which is a metal element.)
A whimsical example is the apparent conflict between two Biblical statements: “Thou shalt not steal” and “The Lord helps those who help themselves.”
In his Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant provides three examples of real conflicts between sensible, acceptable rules or propositions. He states these rules and then provides proofs of both the thesis and the antithesis of each. That is what makes them antinomies. Here is one of them: Consider “Every phenomenon has at least one natural cause.” In other words, all things in nature are determined (that is, “caused”) by at least one natural law. This seems a reasonable concept. But Kant also demonstrates that there is freedom in nature. That also seems to make sense. But if there is freedom in the universe, how can all phenomena be determined by one or more natural causes? A phenomenon (including you) can’t be both determined and free.
Paradox. A paradox is an internally inconsistent statement or set of statements. The classic example comes from Epimenides (c. 600 BC) who wrote, “All Cretans are liars.” It becomes a paradox if you are told that Epimenides himself was a Cretan. Another classic illustration: Take a sheet of blank paper and write on it: “The statement on the other side of this paper is false.” Then do the same thing on the other side of the paper. Try to reconcile the two statements (without turning the paper over several times, if possible). It can’t be done. A more compact version of the same point: “This is a false statement.” This proposition cannot be true, or else it is false. And if it is false, it cannot be true, so it must be true. Thus, it can be neither true nor false.
Oscar Wilde famously said, “I can resist anything except temptation.” That is a paradox, too.
Falsehood. A falsehood is a contradiction or allegation that cannot be resolved, either literally or figuratively. It is not necessarily a lie: the verb “to lie” implies something about the intentions of the utterer. Three famous falsehoods come from George Orwell’s novel 1984: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”
As we have seen, oxymorons and other contradictions can be complex and stretch the intellect. This is not true of palindromes. Unlike the previous two, which deal with ideas and concepts, palindromes deal simply with the spelling of words. They are easy.
A palindrome is a word or phrase that reads the same, whether you read it from left to right or reversed, from right to left. (In Greek, “palin-” is a word fragment meaning “again”; “-drome” is a word fragment related to running. (“Palindromos” in Greek means “running back again.”) Examples are “radar” and “rotator,” as they read the same, whether forwards or backwards.
Another very popular one has been whimsically attributed to Napoleon: “Able was I ere I saw Elba. ” (The reader should know that Napoleon, defeated in 1814, abdicated and went into exile on the Isle of Elba in the Mediterranean. Eight months later he escaped and re-established his armies, which led to the denouement of the Napoleonic era, four months later, at Waterloo.)
More modern, and somewhat less well-known palindromes include:
- A slut nixes sex in Tulsa
- Lager, sir, is regal.
- Live, O Devil, revel ever! Live! Do evil!
- Name not one man.
- Nurse, I spy gypsies! Run!
- Was it a bat I saw?