Say Pleonasm: 9 Common Phrases Longer Than They Need to Be

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The word pleonasm describes phrases that use more words than necessary to get across a point. Sometimes a pleonasm is used for effect. Other times it's just redundant. Here are some examples people use all the time. Add your own in the comments.

Neck image via Shutterstock

1. Nape of the neck. There’s only one nape, and it’s the back of your neck. It’s possible we get confused by the “scruffs” of animals’ necks since there are other scruffs out there. If you’re ever talking about a nape, though, you can drop "of the neck."

2. False pretense. This is one we all should have known before. Although pretense technically means any “claim or implication,” the vast majority of the time, our usage of “pretense” already implies falsehood. For example: when’s the last time you thought something was both pretentious and genuine?

3. Frozen tundra. “Tundra” comes from the Russian word for Arctic steppes, and tundra is generally characterized by permafrost, frozen subsoil. Technically, there is non-frozen Alpine tundra, so-called from lack of vegetation, not temperature. Still, the vast majority of tundra is frozen. So, whether you’re talking about northern Siberia or poking fun at North Dakotan winters, this phrase is generally redundant.

4. Gnashing of teeth. This one is a symbol of frustration and suffering. But “to gnash” already means “to grind one’s teeth” and has meant that since the fifteenth century. If the only thing you can gnash is teeth, this little turn of phrase is pitch-perfect pleonasm.

5. Head honcho. “Honcho” is a relatively new addition to English, coming to us from Japanese around the time of World War II. In Japanese, hancho means “group leader,” so American servicemen picked the word up in normal conversation. However, since “honcho” (with the anglicized spelling) already means boss or leader, adding the head is just excessive.

6. Bleary-eyed. People wake up bleary-eyed every morning. People get bleary-eyed every day and fuel those 5-Hour Energy commercials. “Bleary” already means dulled or dimmed in vision. No other part of you can be bleary at all. Other things can be bleary, like a foggy mirror, but if you’re bleary, you don’t need to add the part about your eyes.

7. Veer off course. There’s no other place a person can veer. “Veer” means “to change direction” or “to go off course” no matter what. In fact, it’s meant that since at least the 1580s. Because the prepositional phrase is unnecessary, English speakers have probably been overstating their veers for centuries.

8. Safe haven. “Haven” is an old word. And several dictionaries still list its literal meaning first: “harbor” or “port.” But since the 13th century, English speakers have primarily used the figurative meaning: a place of safety and refuge. So, unless you’re telling someone about an especially non-threatening harbor, you can leave off the first part.

9. Ford a river. This one isn’t nearly as common as the others. But from time to time, one hears about fording a river. “Ford” as a verb means “to cross a river or stream” coming from the noun “ford” for a shallow place in the water. In theory, one could ford a lake, but no one ever says that.
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Prepay in advance? Tired cliché? Give us your best pleonasms below.

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May 16, 2012 - 6:29pm
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