It is said that Britain’s middle class starts the day against the soundtrack of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme – the most influential early-morning purveyor of news and current- affairs reportage. If I’m sentient at that time of day, and not otherwise engaged, I also tune in. A few days ago, the commentary covered the ill-fated American adventure at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, with the presenter hitting us with this:
“The planned overthrow of Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs was a fiasco that failed.”
Now, have you ever heard of a fiasco that succeeded? No, me neither – simply because a fiasco means ‘a complete failure’. This is why this statement is tautological. Tautology is the use of a word or words which repeat an idea unnecessarily. It is thus a stylistic fault involving redundancy. What the presenter should have said was this:
The planned overthrow of Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs was a complete fiasco.
The planned overthrow of Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs was a venture that failed.
Tautology is surprisingly common – even among educated adults. Let me give you an example from A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language by four professors of English, for whom it is an uncharacteristic lapse, their sizeable Grammar being probably the most authoritative source of information about how the English language is organised.
“The wording should not be misunderstood in some sense not intended by the speaker.”
How often do we actually intend to misunderstand messages? Well, it does happen, but that’s not what was meant by the four linguistic luminaries, who should have written this:
The wording should not be interpreted in some sense not intended by the speaker.
Tautology may also result from using adjectives alongside their synonyms. This is usually done to amplify a characteristic but always backfires. The four examples given below come from reputable sources, including the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) and Department for Education and Employment (DfEE). In each quote, one of the two highlighted adjectives is tautological and should, therefore, be removed.
“There is evidence of effective action on the main key issues.” (Handbook for Inspecting Primary and Nursery Schools by OFSTED)
“(…) to understand features of formal official language (…). “ (Grammar for Writing by DfEE)
“(…) children spend introductory time with the reception class on a regular weekly basis.” (OFSTED inspection report)
“We think it is inconceivable that Spain should demand our sovereignty as the trade-off for having decent civilised relations.” (The Guardian)
Another type of tautology is when people use adjectives which express characteristics inherent in the nouns they modify. Examples include positive benefits (are there negative benefits?), a new innovation (is there an old innovation?), an unexpected surprise (is there an expected surprise?) and a negative prejudice (is there a positive prejudice?) Such tautological usage is just as common as the deployment of synonymous adjectives. The examples quoted below also come courtesy of educated adults.
“He is then ready to return to reality, and welcome its positive benefits [WRITE: benefits].” (Grammar for Writing by DfEE)
“Oramo said yesterday that his appointment had come as ‘an unexpected surprise’ [WRITE: complete surprise].” (The Daily Telegraph)
“Cut research and you slow new drug innovation [WRITE: innovation].” (The Sunday Times)
“One misconception is that positive self-esteem [WRITE: EITHER self-esteem OR positive self-image] exists independently of skills and abilities.” (The Independent)
So mind how you go: tautology is a trap ensnaring even those whom we might reasonably expect to be able to spot and avoid it.
What on earth was I doing reading about a chap who got off on owning Rolls-Royces? A non-driver, I’m completely impervious to the delights of any automobile, so this must have been one of those temporary aberrations to which I fall prey on occasion. Anyway, here I am, deeply buried in The Sunday Times and feeling mildly bemused by this journalist waxing lyrical about how a Rolls-Royce “carries a greater weight of association, assumption and prejudice”, when I get walloped with this revelation.
“I got it from a nice man called Alan, who owns a moustache with a strong Midlands accent.”
While I would agree that having an accented moustache is no more than any man selling second-hand Rolls-Royces deserves, I have a sneaky suspicion that this was not what the hack, hailed as the paper’s most brilliant writer, meant – unless it was a tortuous attempt at hilarity (which I doubt). So what is an inveterate editor to do? How about this?
I got it from a nice man called Alan, who owns a moustache and has [OR speaks with] a strong Midlands accent.
Or might a shorter version be better?
I got it from a nice man called Alan, with a moustache and strong Midlands accent.
In either case, the solution lies in deploying coordination, that is linking units of text by means of a coordinating conjunction (i.e. and, or or but).
Having overdosed on the unparalleled virtues of Rolls-Royces and the author’s verbal dexterity, I turned my attention to BBC Radio 4. To those reading this outside Britain, BBC Radio 4 is a beacon of broadcasting excellence, so I was slightly taken aback by this statement.
“She begins to suspect the soundness of her own mind.”
Had she been of unsound mind before, I wondered. But the context categorically precluded that interpretation, although it was the only one allowed by this sentence. It didn’t take me long, though, to work out what the broadcaster was attempting to say, which was this.
She begins to doubt the soundness of her own mind.
Careless word choice is at the root of many a misunderstanding, my file literally bursting with similar examples. But, since I’m trying not to be over-indulgent with this rant, I’m saving these quotes for later; I hope you will bear with me.
My Dear Readers,
I fervently hope it’s not a farewell, but if you never hear from me again, this might be because I’m locked away in the Tower of London. And this is why …
“Your Queen …”
“Elizabeth 2nd …”
“Yes, yes – why?”
“Isn’t she’s widely respected?”
“Absolutely – even by the Scots.”
“Even by the Scots?”
“And by the Commonwealth?”
“And by the Commonwealth.”
“And by Canada?”
“You numpty: Canada is in the Commonwealth. Come to think of it, so is Britain.”
“Oh … well … anyway, I’ve been thinking …”
“No, seriously, I can’t get my head round it, but I think there is a plot …”
“A plot? What sort of plot?”
“To undermine your Queen.”
“You must be joking! She is a national treasure – nobody would dare.”
“That’s what I thought, but … but … you had this independence referendum, didn’t you?”
“We didn’t – the Scots did.”
“Same country, same thing.”
“Just don’t say this in Scotland. So what about the referendum?”
“Well, some people were very happy – weren’t they?”
“They were indeed.”
“Including the Queen?”
“And then she spoke on 19th September.”
“She did indeed.”
“But I think somebody had interfered with her speech.”
“How do you mean?”
“You said she had people to write her speeches, didn’t you?”
“All important people do.”
“That’s it, that’s it – they must have interfered with it.”
“I don’t know why, but they must have done; I heard it on the radio.”
“What exactly did you hear?”
“Your Queen said this.”
“Now, as we move forward, we should remember that despite the range of views that have been expressed, we have in common an enduring love of Scotland, which is one of the things that helps to unite us all.”
“‘Things that HELPS’ – she said this?”
“She did. If you don’t believe me, just Google ‘Queen’s Speech 19 September 2014’ – it’s all over the internet.”
“I do believe you, actually – it’s a classic.”
“Is that why they chose this error?”
“The plotters: the people in charge of her speech.”
“Look, there was no plot!”
“But, but … she must … they must … I mean she can’t …”
“Look, I really don’t want to discuss this: as they say, walls have ears.”
“What yours have is peeling wallpaper – that’s for sure.”
“No, I mean it. You’ve heard of the Tower of London?”
“Well, I’d rather be outside than inside.”
“Why? I think you should definitely go inside: it’s very interesting; we went on this tour, and …”
“No, no, I don’t mean a tour. Look, you know I write a blog, don’t you?”
“You write a blog?”
“Yep – about common errors of grammar, punctuation, spelling, stuff like that. I try to make it funny, but it doesn’t always work.”
“I’m sure it doesn’t.”
“What? Oh forget it. Anyway, I wrote about this mistake in my very first post.”
“Yep. We had this Secretary of State for Education; his name was Michael Gove – well, still is. That’s what he said.”
“I am not one of those people who HAS an instant answer.”
“The Secretary of State for Education?”
“Yep; and Kenneth Clarke, another former Secretary of State for Education, said this.”
“I am one of the few people who HAS met Jean-Claude Juncker.”
“You are kidding!”
“Nope; it’s a common pattern. You see, many people get awfully confused by this ‘one’ – awfully – and think that they need a singular verb. But they don’t: the verb has to agree with THINGS and PEOPLE – not with ‘one’ – so it has to be plural.”
“But you said that number agreement was basic grammar.”
“So how come …”
“Look, they don’t like grammar here – or, at least, didn’t use to.”
“Why? Grammar is simply about how we construct sentences, isn’t it?”
“Yep, but many reckon native speakers don’t need it.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“I am, sadly. Look, just read my post.”
“I will, I will. Shall we contact the Palace then?”
“And say what?”
One of the things that HELP [NOT helps]
One of the people who HAVE [NOT has]
“Go right ahead; just leave me out of it.”
I apologise for revisiting the subject, the trigger being the Queen’s speech of 19th September 2014. The jocular post in which I wrote about this error for the first time, Accordant Waverleys and Discordant Secretaries of State (Post 1), can be found in the archives under May 2014. I actually published it on April 25th but as a page rather than a post (at the beginning, I didn’t know what I was doing technology-wise – no, please don’t tell me I still don’t) and twigged only on May 9th, which is why it appears under that date.