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.


Lit Bit: March 28, Nelson Algren

Nelson Algren won the first National Book Award for "The Man with the Golden Arm."

Unless you live in Chicago, you probably don’t hear much about Nelson Algren anymore, and that’s too bad.

The Chicago writer would have been 101 years old today, and it’s likely he wouldn’t be surprised by his obscurity.  Even at his most popular, after winning the first National Book Award for The Man with the Golden Arm, and earning the praises of Ernest Hemingway, Simone de Beauvoir, and Richard Wright, among others, critics either ignored or condemned him.

His subjects, his voice, his own personality was not as polished and presentable as other writers of his day, but he wrote what he knew.

Algren grew up in Chicago, where most of his stories are set in the city’s seedy underside. His subjects were equally dark: Drug addiction, racism, poverty, crime. He wrote of junkies, pimps, prostitutes, and grifters. He addressed pressing social issues long before it was fashionable, and he wrote about them with an authentic, strong, unforgiving voice that brought his characters to life and still rings true.

Algren’s black humor novel A Walk on the Wild Side is the story of Dove Linkhorn, a naive Texan who travels to New Orleans to find his lost love, Hallie, who turns out to be a prostitute. This novel is often called Algren’s masterpiece. He describes it this way,

The book asks why lost people sometimes develop into greater human beings than those who have never been lost in their whole lives.

Lou Reed’s song about male prostitutes and transvestites, Walk on the Wild Side was inspired when Reed was approached to write a musical version of Algren’s novel, which never materialized.

While critics weren’t kind to Algren, the city of Chicago actively berated him, saying his characterization of the city was grotesque and exaggerated. The city held a grudge, too.

After Algren died on May 9, 1981, when Chicago’s West Algren Street was named in his honor, the residents complained so much that the name reverted back to West Evergreen Street. Even the Nelson Algren Awards, an annual writing contest for short fiction created by the Chicago Tribune was discontinued after a few years.

Algren died on May 9, 1981, and by 1989 all of his work was out of print.  Thankfully, The Nelson Algren Committee founded by Studs Turkel changed that and Algren’s work has been available print ever since.

I’m inspired by Nelson Algren, by his writing, by his voice, and by his commitment. He wrote what he knew with brutal honesty. It wasn’t the fast path to celebrity or success, but through the years he has finally gained the respect he sought. He’s not remembered or read as often as Hemingway, Faulkner, or Fitzgerald, but he’s still read and that’s a testament to his dedication and his talent.