Even after we have made sense of the parts of speech, punctuation, grammar and sentence construction, it is still possible to get our English horribly wrong.

We can mix up our words (is it lay or lie?); we can use too many words (should we say exact replica?); and we can confuse things (you never did nothing). Just to get our style right can be a problem. Who out there uses whom these days? Are old-fashioned words like whilst and amongst still valid? Should we avoid clichés like the plague?

And then there are the rules that never were. Is it correct to occasionally split infinitives? If you can’t end sentences with prepositions, then what are they for? And is it acceptable to start a sentence with a conjunction?

On this and the following page we will try to answer some of those questions.

Using too many words can mostly be considered a fault in style. Redundant phrases, or pleonasms, are groups of words with a single meaning that can often be replaced with just a single word. Some well-known examples are: at this point in time, which can adequately be replaced with the simple now; and in order that, which can be replaced with so or to.

The tautology is a specific type of redundant phrase. It means saying the same thing twice, but with different words (e.g. twelve noon; safe sanctuary; sum total).
Among the more interesting tautologies are those we use in legal terms. These gradually came into our language after the Norman conquest of England in 1066, and developed to provide the courts with French and native English (and sometimes Latin) synonyms for common legal concepts. They became so entrenched in our language and legal writing that we soon began to double words regardless of their language origins. We can use the following doublets without fear or favour:

acknowledge and confess English/French
aid and abet English/English
breaking and entering English/French
cease and desist English/French
each and every English/English
fear or favour English/French
final and conclusive French/Latin
fit and proper English/French
force and effect French/French
give and grant English/French
had and received English/French
keep and maintain English/French
lands and tenements English/French
let or hindrance English/English
made and provided English/Latin
new and novel English/French
null and void French/French
pardon and forgive French/English
peace and quiet French/Latin
shun and avoid English/French
terms and conditions French/Latin
to have and to hold English/English
will and testament English/Latin
wrack and ruin English/French

Of course, these doublets are not just restricted to legal terms. English has many endearing terms: dribs and drabs; hale and hearty; nooks and crannies; safe and sound; all and sundry; over and above! Who said we shouldn’t use tautologies?

Closely related to these is the oxymoron, where words of contradictory meaning are joined: the only way out was in; bitter-sweet; anecdotal evidence; pretty ugly; deafening silence. Some phrases like military intelligence, Microsoft Works, and non-working mother are not oxymora, but seem to be when seen from a humorous viewpoint (just as criminal lawyer is not really a tautology). In fact, tautologies, pleonasms and oxymora are all seriously used by our greatest writers:

These examples are, of course, perfectly delightful. Often we can use wordy or contradictory phrases to express a paradox, create irony or introduce polemic to our writing. Also, flowery and wordy descriptive phrases may well express nuance where the pithy short word would seem mechanical – but they should only be used with purpose and caution. Generally, keep your language free of repetition and wordiness.

Here are a few well-known tautologies and pleonasms. Some are just a little bit of fun; others are serious errors in style:

a greater amount of more
as a result of because
at a later date later
at the present time now
certainly/quite/very … use modifiers sparingly.
changes for the better improvements
close proximity proximity
collaborate together collaborate
continue on continue
divide up divide
during the course of during
each and every each (or every)
end result result
exactly the same the same
for the purposes of to
she is a person who she
I am writing to say … … yes, we know.
I would like to … … just say it!
important essentials essentials
in order to to
in terms of … … use the relevant preposition
in the event that if
in the process of gathering gathering
inside of inside
it was first introduced it was introduced
no later than by
of particular interest of interest
outside of outside
past history history
prior to before
protest against protest
provided an indication of indicated
refer back refer
seek for something seek something
small in size small
square shaped square
take steps to … eliminate the phrase.
up until until
3:00AM in the morning
added bonus
almost unique
ask the question
brilliant genius
collaborate together
completely decimated
empty hole
exact replica
fatally slain
final conclusion
foreign imports
former graduate
free gift
green in colour
hollow tunnel
huge giant
joint co-operation
known unknowns
more unique
new innovation
original founder
original source
penniless vagrant
personal friendship
previously listed above
reason why
razed to the ground
revert back
safe sanctuary
sink down
small speck
successful achievement
totally demolished
twelve noon
uniquely original
usual custom
work together as a team

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