The Friday Fillip: Tell Me Again

Lawyers are often rebuked — and sometimes mocked — (it’s those very hard ‘k’s that do the damage, isn’t it?) for delighting in doublets and, heaven forfend, even triplets. You know what I mean: null & void, cease and desist, right and title, &cet. Of course, “doublet” suggests that these word-pairs are identical twins when to a discerning solicitor they’re often barely fraternal. Even so, wise heads recommend that we not chase perfection down both forks of the road (and certainly not trivia) and instead content ourselves with a broader term in a proper context, trusting in the good sense of our readers. (Which feels like recommending the use of body English once the missive has left the building…)

We’re not the only ones, however, who lard the text in this way. Anyone who reads newspapers will know that journalists are prone to saying things that are… unnecessary. And from them hoi polloi have learned to say what doesn’t need to be said, so that it’s a common thing nowadays to do that.

My favourite example is the curious word “preplan.” If planning doesn’t take place before the moment in question, it ain’t planning, right? Similarly, “past history”: the fact is that all things took place in the past, and history is chief among them.

To see this scourge on a broader scale, you might take a look at the website Unnecessary Journalism Phrases, maintained by Josh Sternberg, who fields examples from the daily press as they catch his eye. Thus, to pick an obvious point, he gives you that stellar redundancy of commerce, “free gift,” along with half a dozen instances of its use by people who should know better. Other examples become obvious once you look at them: “final outcome,” “evolve over time,” “blend together,” or “never before.”

Of course, Garner’s and Sternberg’s laconism might make less sense once we move away from the fields of law and journalism. There’s a lot to like in repetition, as anyone who enjoys music can tell you. So in literature and certainly in poetry we’ll find saying it and saying it again to be highly desirable at times. Rhyme and alliteration (“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought….” [Shakespeare, Sonnet XXX]) are both instances that slip below the level of conscious meaning and that can feel good in the mouth. Indeed, so useful is repetition in literature that the discipline studying it has developed a number of terms in Greek to label the various sorts. Here, to close, are some examples illustrated by Shakespeare and taken from Shakespear’s Grammar:

anadiplosis: the repetition of a word that ends one clause at the beginning of the next
“My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.”
1 (Richard III, V, iii)

diacope: repetition broken up by one or more intervening words
“Put out the light, and then put out the light.” (Othello, V, ii)

epanalepsis: repetition at the end of a clause of the word that occurred at the beginning of the clause
“Blood hath bought blood, and blows have answer’d blows.” (King John, II, i)

polysyndeton: the repetition of conjunctions in a series of coordinate words, phrases, or clauses
“If there be cords, or knives,
Poison, or fire, or suffocating streams,
I’ll not endure it.”
(Othello, III, iii)


  1. m. diane kindree

    Live and learn: I thought the doublet-triplet problem was only encountered in particle physics and when purchasing cheap black opals.

    If we are to believe or accept that straight or linear thoughts are inseparable from good and concise writing then why aren’t all contracts written as Bard Sonnets?

    It remains to be seen, if reverting back to plain English is now due. Past history speaks about the evolutionary changes influencing our language from the Germanic, Latinate/Romance, Norman and French cultures. Was speaking in doublets and triplets necessary in order to clarify,understand and discern what was being said?

    If your noble aim; measure for measure, shall or must be to eliminate legal writing of unnecessary redundancies and annoying jargon, then hereafter and heretofore off with their letters!