language corner

Striking redundant expressions

Why use two words when one would do?
July 1, 2014

“Write tighter” is a plea most journalists have heard, probably more than once. One way to do so is to find where you’ve used two or more words to convey a thought or image that one of those words already does.

“She nodded her head,” for example, can just be “she nodded.” She can’t nod any part but her head, after all. She can, however, “nod off,” where the “off” is needed to indicate that she fell asleep.

Similarly, you can “shrug” only one part of your body. So why say, “he shrugged his shoulders”? It’s redundant. Someone can “shrug off” a burden, but those occasions will be fewer than ones using the shoulders.

“Quietly whispers” is also redundant. A whisper is quiet. A qualifier might be needed occasionally, such as “he whispered harshly,” indicating it was a vehement whisper, not a gentle one.

When you “think,” you are thinking to yourself, so you don’t have to mention it. “Thinking out loud” is different, of course, so go ahead and say that.

“Gifts” are, by their nature, “free” and “complimentary,” and if the gift is a “bouquet,” it is almost always flowers, so save some words: “a complimentary gift of a bouquet of flowers.” If it’s one of those “fruit bouquets,” then, yes, add the fruit.

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“Evolved” means changed over time, so “evolved over time” has two too many words. “Tundras” are arctic landscapes, so put “frozen tundra” in the deep-freeze. And so on, etc.

What other redundant expressions can you think of, off the top of your head?

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.