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Reverting back to another language no-no

In my fearless quest to seek out and eradicate lazy, ineffective, or just downright inaccurate English, the latest blip to appear on my radar was an example of redundancy (aka tautology), which appeared on a medical website.

By returning back to a more traditional diet they become healthier and stronger.

Why is this raising my hackles? Simply because return means ‘to go or come back’, meaning that you don’t need to use the word back as well in the same sentence. Similar cases, in which a word is unnecessary because it repeats a meaning that’s already contained within another word, are:

He wants the High Plains to revert back to grass, not crops.
She remains confident about the company’s future prospects.

These usages are all too common in every type of writing, from scientific journals to the media and fiction: the Oxford English Corpus has over 1,000 examples of the unnecessary use of ‘future’ before ‘prospects’ – such verbiage!

Admittedly, it’s not so aargh-making as the apostrophe catastrophes that I held forth about before, and there is less scope for out-and-out confusion, but redundancy bothers me because it sends out the wrong signals to your audience. Many people will assume that you don’t understand the meaning of the words you’re using, which can create a bad impression or stand in the way of getting your message across concisely and effectively.

The Bard of River?

Tautologies can crop up in some surprising places. Sometimes they are concealed by two languages being used together. I recently spotted the following example on the Oxford English Corpus:

‘… a mixed masala of African jazz and dance tunes …’

A masala, as any curry fiend will tell you, is a mix of spices used in Indian cookery, so mixed is the redundant word here.

Geographical names also are prone to repeating themselves for a similar reason. Such names in English often consist of a current English word and one derived from a former Celtic or Old English term: River Avon and Coombe Valley are prime examples of this.

River AvonStratford-upon-Avon

Both avon and coombe (or combe) are Celtic in origin. Avon comes from a Celtic word (related to afon in modern Welsh) meaning ‘river’, while coombe in the same language means ‘valley’ (and is related to Welsh cwm). ‘Translated’ wholly into today’s English, these names would repetitiously become ‘River River’ and ‘Valley Valley’.

The alternative would be to drop one of the words, but given that the inhabitants of these places are understandably quite attached to their place names, and also that the ‘Bard of River’ is far less euphonious than the ‘Bard of Avon’ (i.e Shakespeare), I’m prepared to relax my sticklerish inclinations when it comes to this type of repetition.

Don’t fall into the tautology trap

If you want some easy tips on avoiding the worst of the periphrastic pitfalls when speaking or writing, Oxford Dictionaries Online is only too happy to help with advice on avoiding redundant expressions (only available for subscribers) and you can find further guidance in the Oxford Guide to Plain English.