Please Don't Have A Temper Tantrum About The Pleonasm In This Headline

Sep 19, 2015
Originally published on September 28, 2015 2:40 pm

There's been a "mass exodus of Syrians," one of's headlines declared earlier this month.

President Obama said in August that the U.S. should boost domestic energy production and rely less on "foreign imports."

A state lawmaker in Illinois had a "temper tantrum," The Two-Way wrote in 2012.

Those are pleonasms — instances where there's a word or two more than necessary. A pleonasm is a type of redundancy, though not one in which the words mean exactly or nearly the same thing.

Take "mass exodus." According to Webster's New World College Dictionary, the word "exodus" means "a going out or forth, esp. in a large group." So there's no need to add "mass."

Imports are by definition from other nations, so "foreign" is unnecessary.

Webster's says a "tantrum" is a "childish fit of bad temper."

John McIntyre of The Baltimore Sun is one of the most respected copy editors in the nation. He has written about pleonasms on his You Don't Say language blog. McIntyre acknowledges that "pleonasms can constitute repetitions for deliberate effect, as in William Faulkner's Nobel speech about the 'old verities and truths of the heart.' "

It would also seem to be far above this blogger's station to criticize William Shakespeare for deeming Brutus' stabbing of Caesar the "most unkindest cut of all." We'll assume Shakespeare put that "most" there for a reason.

But as McIntyre has written, while pleonasms may occasionally have their place, "they are most commonly errors."

They also take up room, and at NPR and other news organizations where reporters and editors have to fit information into sometimes tight time and space constraints, it's important to eliminate unnecessary words.

We're interested in hearing about pleonasms that bother folks, and we're interested in hearing from those who think it's silly to worry about pleonasms. Share your thoughts in the comments thread, on NPR's Facebook page or in emails to

Finally, here's one more piece of recommended reading: comedian George Carlin's essay titled "Count the Superfluous Redundant Pleonastic Tautologies."

Mark Memmott is NPR's standards and practices editor. He co-hosted The Two Way from its launch in May 2009 through April 2014. Email him at

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We're joined now by Mark Memmott, who's NPR's standards and practices editor, who occasionally joins us from time to time for an oral conversation about a long litany of issues. Mark, thanks very much for being with us.

MARK MEMMOTT, BYLINE: Glad to be here.

SIMON: Have I been dealing in pleonasms?

MEMMOTT: You have been. You're afflicted with pleonasms, as we probably all are every day.

SIMON: A pleonasm is not something from "50 Shades Of Grey," alas.

MEMMOTT: No, no, no, no. We don't have to bleep anything this time, Scott, yeah.

SIMON: And they are...

MEMMOTT: It refers to using more words than are necessary to explain what you're thinking. Now, you might guess the word comes from the Greek and Latin. It's kind of like a redundancy, but it's a little bit different in the sense that when you string together words that are basically the same, like Mark is pedantic, didactic and scholastic when it comes to language, that's redundancy. Pleonasm refers to the addition of unnecessary words. So, for instance, how many times have you heard someone say they're going to do some advanced planning?

SIMON: Yeah, OK. What other kind is there? Yes.

MEMMOTT: You don't need the advanced - or in the news right now, we've seen headlines and we've heard stories about the mass exodus of Syrians and others toward Europe.

SIMON: An exodus, by definition, is mass.

MEMMOTT: Exactly. You don't need the word mass - or from California, homes that have been completely destroyed by fire. If you've been destroyed, that's complete.

SIMON: Yeah. Now, I don't want to be defensive. But, for example, when I said oral conversation, there - there are other forms of conversation these days online.

MEMMOTT: Exactly. And please allow me to contradict myself if I can that there are some times when pleonasms make some sense. If you really want to drive home the point, if you're afraid that perhaps the listener might be distracted, might not hear exactly what it is you say and you want to make clear that you're talking about an oral conversation, not - not texts back and forth or something like that - there's a case to be made that it's good.

SIMON: Yeah. But as a generalization, this is something that we should probably avoid.

MEMMOTT: We should watch out for them. I mean, you know, we struggle sometimes to get all the information we want into our pieces. Reporters - you and I both know this because we've been reporters - they want to get more in. They always want more time. Well, one way to get more words in is to eliminate the ones you don't need.

SIMON: What about a phrase - which I hate to lose - like safe haven? I mean, I recognize - well, OK, go ahead.

MEMMOTT: Well, I would say that safe haven has become - it's very common. It's usage that people will understand, and it's going to make the point that you want to make - that, for instance, the people who are coming from Syria and trying to find new homes in Europe are looking for a safe haven. That really means something to people, I think. You don't need the safe, but it does drive it home.

SIMON: I suspect a lot of people listening are going to have their own favorite - or should I say least favorite pleonasms. They are free to contact you with the pleonasm of their choice.

MEMMOTT: Oh, I'd love to hear about more of them. I'm sure we've missed many.

SIMON: All right, wordmatters - all one word - Mark Memmott, NPR's standards and practices editor, a living legend in his own time, thanks (laughter). See, you won't contradict me on that. That's OK with you, right?

MEMMOTT: That's a perfect pleonasm.

SIMON: (Laughter) Thanks very much for being with us.

MEMMOTT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.