David Bowie, Pleonasms, and Stating the Obvious

You would think that a rock star being married to a super-model would be one of the greatest things in the world.  It is.

— David Bowie


This quote made me laugh.  When I read the first sentence, I expected a “woe is me” revelation, but Mr. Bowie tricked it up and said something obvious, at least to some.  To others being married to a super model would be hell.

The quote got me thinking about stating the obvious in writing.

For example:  Rebecca twirled her hair with her finger as she looked out the window.

That sentence immediately stops me.  Of course she’s twirling her hair with her finger, what else would she use?  A fork?  Her tongue?  If she’s using something else to twirl her hair that should be stated, otherwise with her finger can be deleted and it does not change the meaning of the sentence.

Those extra words, with her finger, are called a pleonasm.

A whaaat?

Pleonasm.  It’s a form of redundancy.  Merriam-Webster Online defines it as, (noun) The use of more words than those necessary to denote mere sense. (1)

It might be an unfamiliar word, but it’s a familiar writing mistake.  Other pleonasms are:

  • exactly the same
  • consensus of opinion
  • bald headed
  • shrugged his/her shoulders
  • 12 noon (and 12 midnight)

Individually, these examples may seem nit-picky, but if left to build on each other, they can ruin a writer’s credibility.  It’s normal, even expected, to find pleonasms in a first and second draft, but beyond that, the clutter should be cleared for concise and powerful writing.

Sometimes after cleaning up my writing, I end up with a series of short, dull, lifeless sentences.  To state the obvious again, that’s not the goal.  The goal is to make every word count, regardless of the length of the sentence.

Here are some examples where the authors do just that.  These aren’t short sentences, but every word has a purpose.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway:
“He no longer dreamed of storms, nor of women, nor of great occurrences, nor of great fish, nor fights, nor contests of strength, nor of his wife. He only dreamed of places now and the lions on the beach. They played like young cats in the dusk and he loved them as he loved the boy. He never dreamed about the boy. He simply woke, looked out the open door at the moon and unrolled his trousers and put them on.”

From Little Women by Louisa May Alcott:
“There are many Beths in the world, shy and quiet, sitting in corners till needed, and living for others so cheerfully that no one sees the sacrifices till the little cricket on the hearth stops chirping, and the sweet, sunshiny presence vanishes, leaving silence and shadow behind.”

This kind of sharp, clear writing takes effort, editing, and a strong attention to detail.  It can be frustrating to work a sentence, and work it, and work it again, but as writers that’s what we’re called to do.  We’ll leave the pleonasms to the rock stars.

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My pet peeve pleonasm is listed above: exactly the same.  It drives me crazy and I use it all the time!  Luckily, it’s the red flag in my writing that screams EDIT, so it is useful in its way. What’s your (least) favorite pleonasm?  For an exhaustive list, visit Pleonasms.com.  Of course they have their own website.

The Silent Writers Collective meets every Tuesdays at 9 PM Eastern and/or 9 PM Pacific (US). Join this online community of writers for an hour of quiet writing.  You’ll be amazed at how productive one hour can be.