Department of Redundancy Department

This morning a passionate political commentator urged me to look into the past history of one of the presidential candidates. What’s the difference between past history and plain old history? No difference at all. If it’s history, it’s in the past. “Past history” is redundant. (It’s true that you can have something from the past that’s not history. That is, something might have happened so long ago that there was nobody to set down the story for others to read or hear. But we have a separate word for that: prehistoric.)

A closely related redundancy is “pre-planning.” The only time you can plan something is “pre” the thing you are planning for. There can be no “post-planning” (though you could do a post mortem). Even if you plan some things before you plan other things, it’s still all planning.

Do you wonder whether I am telling you the true facts? Ah, there’s another redundancy. There is no such things as a false fact. If it’s a fact, it’s true by definition. You can have false statements, false information and false equivalencies, but you can’t have false facts.

So think of this advice as my free gift to you. Oops. Anytime someone offers you a free gift, they are offering you the same thing twice. It’s not a gift if you have to exchange money, labor or something else to get the goodies. To be a gift, it has to be free.

You run into redundancies even more often with words borrowed from other languages. Instead of choosing between the foreign word and the English word, the redundant writer uses both. Like salsa sauce or the Sierra mountains. The writer might offer the excuse of not knowing the meaning of “salsa” or “sierra.” But that’s not much of an excuse, because you shouldn’t be using words if you don’t know what they mean.

That’s why I don’t have much sympathy for people who say something is in close proximity to something else. Proximate means close. When you approximate something, you are getting close without taking an exact measure. You wouldn’t say “close closeness” (or, rather, you shouldn’t even if you would), so don’t say something is in close proximity.

Now let’s take a look at a clock. Don’t tell me something happened at 8 a.m. in the morning. That’s the only part of the day when there is an 8 a.m. There is no 8 a.m. in the afternoon or at night. Likewise, there’s only one noon and only one midnight. So I already know you mean 12:00.

It’s almost — almost — a lost cause to fight against “proactive,” but it’s still a redundancy. If you are taking the initiative, that’s action. If you are responding to something that already happened, that’s reaction. There is no proaction. If you don’t think plain old action is good enough, you can be pre-emptive, you can be preventive, you can anticipate, you can make things happen, or you can grab the bull by the horns.

Let’s not get carried away, though. There are a few word combinations that look redundant at first, but might be entirely appropriate in the right context. One such combination is “final result.” It’s true that the result is something that comes at the end, but you also might be measuring some interim results. In those cases you have a distinction with a real difference. For numerically minded among you, think of it as the difference between a subtotal and a grand total.

Or you might have a structure has been rebuilt. You would be blameless if you were to refer to the original construction date as when it was first built.

On the other hand, there are word combinations that are not redundant because they are flat out wrong. Let’s look at the clock again. You can’t possibly do something at 12 a.m. or 12 p.m., because those initials mean ante meridiem and post meridiem. The meridiem is 12:00. Just try to do something at noon in the afternoon and see what happens.

This is about the point where someone will demand a rule to end all this confusion. The best one I can give you is to ask yourself if you understand the words you just wrote, instead of mindlessly slapping down a readymade phrase. It’s a hard rule to follow, and you’re sure to let some redundancies slip by. But keep trying again and again.


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