Definition of Pleonasm

A pleonasm is a redundant and tautological phrase or clause, such as “I saw it with my own eyes.” Seeing is, of course, an action done with the eyes, and therefore adding “with my own eyes” is redundant and unnecessary for context. However, there can be stylistic reasons to use pleonasm, such as for emphasis or to keep a meter constant.

The word pleonasm comes from the Greek word πλεονασμός (pleonasmos), which means “excess,” originally from πλέον (pleon), meaning “more; too much.”

Common Examples of Pleonasm

There are many common phrases that we say in English which are examples of pleonasm. Here is a short list:

  • It’s déjà vu all over again
  • It may be possible
  • Hear with my own ears
  • Cash money
  • Free gift
  • Tuna fish
  • True fact
  • Gnashing of teeth
  • Frozen tundra
  • False pretense
  • Bleary-eyed
  • Veer off course
  • Nape of the neck
  • Down south/up north
  • PIN number
  • ATM machine

There are some examples of pleonasms which combine two languages, but end up saying the same thing in both languages. For example, both “Sahara” and “Gobi” mean desert in Arabic and Mongolian, respectively, and thus saying “Sahara Desert” or “Gobi Desert” is redundant. Indeed, there are many hundreds of place names which are pleonasms that use the language of earlier inhabitants of that area combined with a language of more recent inhabitants. Here are other examples of pleonasms that are redundant because of using the same meaning in two languages:

  • Head honcho—“hancho” means “group leader” in Japanese
  • Chai tea—“Chai” means tea in Chinese
  • The Los Angeles Angels—if we translated the middle part of this team name from Spanish into English, this would say “The the angels angels.”
  • Please R.S.V.P.—The acronym R.S.V.P stands for the French “Répondez s’il vous plaît;” three of these four letters of the acronym, thus, are there to say “please.”

Significance of Pleonasm in Literature

While many pleonasm examples are simply redundant, and thus unnecessary, when an author chooses to use pleonasm it’s often for a stylistic reason. For example, there are sometimes pleonastic phrasings in a poem with meter in order to keep the rhythm without changing the context. Usually, though, an author uses pleonasm to emphasize an important point. This is often because there is some extreme emotion or surprising situation which a character or the narrator wants to highlight to express their shock. However, there are also pleonasm examples in literature which are just simple redundancies.

Examples of Pleonasm in Literature

Example #1

ANTONY: Look, in this place ran Cassius’ dagger through.
See what a rent the envious Casca made.
Through this the well-belovèd Brutus stabbed.
And as he plucked his cursèd steel away,
Mark how the blood of Caesar followed it,
As rushing out of doors, to be resolved
If Brutus so unkindly knocked, or no.
For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar’s angel.
Judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar loved him!
This was the most unkindest cut of all.

(Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare)

After Julius Caesar is killed, his friend Antony is horrified to see his cloak with all of the dagger cuts inflicted by Caesar’s friends and enemies. William Shakespeare wrote the majority of his plays and poetry in iambic pentameter, as he does in the above excerpt where Antony looks at the damage. The final line of the excerpt contains the superlative “unkindest,” which Shakespeare precedes with the word “most.” In English, to form the superlative, an adjective needs either “most” in front of it or “-est” added to the end, depending on the word. It is redundant to use both. However, Shakespeare does so here to maintain the iambic pentameter.

Example #2

Let me tell you this, when social workers offer you free, gratis and for nothing, something to hinder you from swooning, which with them is an obsession, it is useless to recoil, they will pursue you to the ends of the earth, the vomitory in their hands. The Salvation Army is no better. Against the charitable gesture there is no defense, that I know of. You sink your head, you put out your hands all trembling and twined together and you say, Thank you, thank you lady, thank you kind lady. To him who has nothing it is forbidden not to relish filth.

(Molloy by Samuel Beckett)

In the above excerpt from Samuel Beckett’s Molloy we find the pleonastic phrase “free, gratis, and for nothing.” Beckett uses this to emphasize the various ways that social workers present things to the destitute. The narrator clearly scorns this practice, saying there is no defense against the need of a charitable worker to push free filth on poor people.

Example #3

At length we came to the farming dwelling and entered it. In the farmhouse I saw, with my own eyes, this sight: there was a man, of young age and graceful proportion, whose body had been torn limb from limb. The torso was here, an arm there, a leg there. Blood lay in thick pools upon the floor, and on the walls, on the roof, on every surface in such profusion that the house seemed to have been painted in red blood. Also there was a woman, in like fashion rended limb from limb. Also a male child, an infant of two years or less, whose head was wrenched from the shoulders, leaving the body a bleeding stump.

All this I saw with my own eyes, and it was the most fearsome sight I ever witnessed. I purged myself and was faint for an hour, purging myself yet again.

(Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton)

Michael Crichton’s novel Eaters of the Dead focuses on a 10-century Arab man who travels with a group of Vikings to their village. In fact, the full title of the novel is Eaters of the Dead: The Manuscript of Ibn Fadlan Relating His Experiences with the Northmen in AD 922. In the section above Ibn Fadlan keeps repeating the phrase “I saw with my own eyes.” He is horrified by the vision of gore in front of him, and it is due to shock that he uses this pleonastic construction. Also, Crichton’s use of this repetition makes the narration sound older, which is appropriate for a manuscript ostensibly written in 922 AD.

Example #4

There were French doors at the back of the hall, beyond them a wide sweep of emerald grass to a white garage, in front of which a slim dark young chauffeur in shiny black leggings was dusting a maroon Packard convertible. Beyond the garage were some decorative trees trimmed as carefully as poodle dogs. Beyond them a large greenhouse with a domed roof. Then more trees and beyond everything the solid, uneven, comfortable line of the foothills.

(The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler)

In the above excerpt from Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, we find a very simple example of pleonasm: poodle dogs. There is no poodle that is not also a dog, and thus this is redundant, like tuna fish or even panda bear.

Test Your Knowledge of Pleonasm

1. Which of the following statements is the best pleonasm definition?
A. The use of more words than are necessary to express an idea.
B. A relatively new or isolated word or term.
C. A word or phrase separated into two parts with other words interrupting between them.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: A is the correct answer. B is the definition of neologism, and C is the definition of tmesis.[/spoiler]

2. Which of the following phrases is an example of a pleonasm?
A. Jumbo shrimp
B. Safe haven
C. Cruel kindness
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: B is the correct answer. A and C are examples of oxymorons.[/spoiler]

3. Does the following stanza from Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself” contain a pleonasm example?

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the
origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are
millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor
look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the
spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things
from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

A. Yes; Whitman uses the phrase “day and night,” and then “earth and sun.”
B. Yes; the concept of looking through eyes is pleonastic.
C. No; “the good of the earth and sun” is not redundant because it does not exactly express the same idea in the first line. Also, because Whitman refers to a “you” looking through the eyes of the dead and “through my eyes” this is not redundant, but instead poetic and metaphorical.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: C is the correct answer.[/spoiler]