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When Is It OK to Be Redundant?

Strunk and White wrote in The Elements of the Style to "omit needless words." What makes a word needless, and when is it OK to be redundant? 

By
Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #471

what_makes_words_needless

The Elements of Style by Strunk & White is one of the most popular usage guides of modern times, and of the book’s advice, “Omit needless words,” may be the most memorable and repeated maxim. It is an example of its own command—it has no needless words—and it appeals to any teacher whose students pad their ideas with fluff to reach a required word count. Despite its simplicity, however, the maxim leaves us with one open question: What makes a word needless?

Add Emphasis

One simple measure is whether a word adds meaning, and the answer can vary from sentence to sentence. Consider personally. At first, it seems to be redundant. Don’t the following sentences mean the same thing?

Personally, I want lasagna for dinner.

I want lasagna for dinner.

Although it’s true that both sentences mean the writer wants lasagna, adding personally to the beginning acknowledges that other people are involved. With personally, it sounds like less of a demand, or it can even convey a sense of resentment or superiority:

Personally, I want lasagna for dinner, but you know we always end up having what George wants.

Personally, I never call mom before noon, but Edith seems to think it’s fine.

Would those sentences mean the same things without personally? Yes, but the writers would also sound less put-upon and self-righteous without the word personally.

Personally can also emphasize disagreement with an authority, an “I have to do this but I don’t want to” feeling:

Personally, I believe the company should reimburse you for those cocktails you sent to Lady Gaga’s table in Las Vegas at 3:00 a.m.―it was clearly a business development opportunity―but Mr. Pursestrings doesn’t agree. 

Reflexive pronouns such as myself, himself, and herself can also add emphasis in ways that seem redundant at first glance. Certainly, the actions are the same in these sentences―but the emphasis is different.

I baked the cake.

I baked the cake myself.

The first sentence (I baked the cake) is a simple statement, perhaps the answer to a question. Maybe someone asked “Who baked the cake?” The myself in the second sentence (I baked the cake myself) adds a different feeling, for example, it could convey a sense of accomplishment from a 10-year-old who has baked his first cake or a sense of abandonment from someone who expected to bake the cake with a friend.

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