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Silly Sayings

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March 8, 2012

We all have words or phrases we use that we know are superfluous, ones that add nothing to what we’re saying, that annoy us when we hear them too often (especially from others).

Mine is “going forward.” Life was grand when it was confined to the boardroom, but it’s the kind of mindless phrase that’s crept into the workplace, the streets, pubs, even coffee lineups.

It’s become so ubiquitous it’s been called the adult version of “like.”

My main quibble is that the phrase simply isn’t needed. It’s redundant.

For example: “our strategy going forward.” What is a strategy if not forward-looking? Would you ever say “going backward?” (You’d probably want out of that situation pretty fast).

What’s more, it’s often randomly tacked onto ends of sentences, as in: “Let’s talk about that tomorrow, going forward.”

The folks at the Institution of Silly & Meaningless Sayings in the U.K. grew so peeved at the phrase that they created the Going-forward-ometer to monitor its use in the hope of expunging it from the English language. But they gave up in frustration.

The value of redundancy

Alas, “going forward” is just one of many redundant words sprinkled throughout our speech.

Think about them: (advance) warning, (ir)regardless, (final) conclusion, (new) innovation, (unexpected) surprise — as opposed to one of those expected surprises. And everyone’s favourite: “at the end of the day.”

Then there’s “the first time ever,” as in the United States’ soccer victory over Italy last month. Although, come to think of it, I can see why you’d want to draw that one out as long as possible.

Not so acceptable is “the reason why,” a furiously debated redundancy that critics say amounts to saying reason twice.

Indeed, people can get really worked up about those needless, niggling words. And yet, we use them all the time. Why?

Well, it could be because “redundancy isn’t inherently bad,” says Gabe Doyle, a PhD student in linguistics at the University of California, San Diego, who has given considerable thought to the subject.

“Where we get annoyed is when language is redundant and awkward, redundant and confusing, redundant and long,” he says, throwing in the example of the good old Department of Redundancy Department.

But Doyle does make a convincing argument why redundancy is an essential part of language.

Your PIN number

One reason is that the excess words can stress a point: “This idea, for all intents and purposes, will save us from bankruptcy.”

Here, the words have what is called a paralinguistic meaning: they’re not meant to be literal, but rather conversational.

Redundant words can also clarify. Saying pre-recorded emphasizes something was recorded before the current taping, just as “surrounded on all sides” explains there is no way out. With free gift, well, it’s the “free” that gets people running!

And chew on this sentence: “The coach smiled at the player tossed the Frisbee.”

All the essential words are there but it’s hard to understand the meaning until you add two more words. “The coach smiled at the player who was tossed the Frisbee.”

(The phrasing probably also marks the difference between spoken and written English. If you say the sentence with the right intonation, it’s completely understandable.)

In addition, redundant words can add weight. We tend to say ATM machine, even though the “M” already stands for machine. The same for other acronyms, like PIN.

“PIN doesn’t have that much weight to it, it’s a single syllable so it’s not necessarily going to be stressed,” Doyle says. “When you say PIN number, you’re getting that extra weight.

“If somebody says ‘Can I have your PIN number?’ then that makes sure that PIN gets enunciated better — you hear number, you have additional information.”

The noisy channel

So don’t be afraid to say the GOP party, the SAT test and 8 a.m. in the morning. You never know when people need that extra clarification.

Doyle says our need for repetition can be explained using the “noisy channel model.”

“The idea of a noisy channel model is that you have somebody who’s speaking, and somebody who’s listening,” says Doyle. “But in between the person speaking and listening, there’s a bunch of noise — whether it’s from the environment or the listener being distracted or whatever could be causing this.”

“And so redundant information helps you overcome that noise and helps you make sure that what you really intended to say gets through to your listener.”

It reminds me of what my mom has always said: Repeat things three times if you want people to remember what you say.

Doyle says it’s hard to predict, but we could see more verbal redundancy in the future as the way we communicate changes, and we get more noise in our daily lives.

Like when you’re on your cellphone in a car and the connection is fuzzy, or out on a loud, busy street, shouting above the hissing busses and the other cellphone users shouting their own conversations.

In those situations, you tend to repeat words, saying them again and then maybe again, just to be sure. And you avoid complex words like quandary, and just say problem.

But it’s not like we’d be problem-free without redundancies. Imagine a world where we all spoke in text messages. Stripped down to essential words, texts can be simple and clear. But as we all know, they can also be easily misunderstood.

So it seems that it can be helpful to use redundant words, just not the ones that somehow mushroom into mindless buzzwords, going forward.

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