All linguistic variety, including social and dialectal differentiation within a given language, is necessarily the product of historical changes, some of which are still in progress at a given point in that language’s development. Members of a speech community use such innovations to signal a variety of messages, such as “stronger meaning,” “group solidarity,” “greater intimacy,” or their opposites. Innovations can be motivated not only by strictly linguistic reasons but by systems of values that also apply to aspects of human behavior beyond speech. Particularly frequent in present-day American English are spontaneous grammatical innovations that redundantly repeat, duplicate, or extend elements of their traditional normative counterparts without any apparent gain in communicative content. Pleonasm is the most familiar category of such hypertrophic forms––the medical analogy is completely apposite here and is deployed advisedly––some of which have in fact become part of the norm. A rational explication of such changes rests on the key assumption that any novel expression, apart from the content invested in it by grammar and pragmatics, has a specific value––or connotative content––by virtue of being different from a traditional expression with the same grammatical and pragmatic content. But in a more abstract sense such changes are ultimately to be explained as instantiations of broader cultural and ideological values.


When one speaks of values as a determinant of linguistic changes, many small examples come to mind, for instance (1) informant vs. informer, where the older and traditional second variant is being replaced by the first. Note that the two suffixes differ in length, and that the newer variant displays the longer of the two. This means that the older variant, informer, has taken on a pejorative value and hence is to be avoided.

Or take the common practice of dropping the article the before specifying persons by their class membership, as in (2) [Ø]commentator Tom Goldman vs. the commentator Tom Goldman. Here the values-oriented interpretation suggests that Americans who habitually drop the article have incorporated the attitude summarized by the formula “you are what you do.”

Another common switch in values accounts for the replacement of the traditional treatment of class designations as inanimate, when referring to them with the relative pronouns who and what, with a focus on their human membership, resulting in the occurrence of who rather than which, as in (3) companies who vs. companies which; cf. “The computer who tracks the standings . . .” (John Feinstein, sports commentator, N[ational] P[ublic] R[adio],  “M[orning] E[dition],” 11/30/07). This is paralleled by the difference in grammatical number between British and American English when referring to mass nouns, as in (4) the family/cabinet are vs. the family/cabinet is.

When one hears examples like

(5) “marquee issues” (unidentified male commentator, NPR, “All Things Considered,” 1/10/06 – discussing Alito confirmation hearings)

(6) “The internal conflict between Fatah and Hamas may get equal billing with the struggle against Israel.” (Eric Westervelt, reporter, NPR, “ME,” 5/22/06)

(7) “. . . before helping other customers [instead of ‘passengers’] with their oxygen mask.” (Continental Airlines in-flight safety announcement, 7/7/06),

the attitude of the speaker towards the content of each utterance dictates the choice of words. The very serious matter of confirmation hearings for a nominee to the Supreme Court of the United States is being treated as if it were merely an entertainment or show business (“marquee issues”), as is the terrible strife resulting in numerous deaths in the Middle East (“get equal billing”). In the last of this triplet of examples, there has been a subtle shift in the way the airline personnel regard their human cargo: instead of focusing on their status as “passengers,” they are now addressed as producers of revenue (“customers”).


A shift in value is not the only matter at stake in discussing pleonasm and other hypertrophies. The latter term is apt because of its medical connotations, since a linguistic hypertrophy is not merely an unwarranted enlargement or bloating but an error, a failure of thought, hence akin to something somatically abnormal. While linguists rarely acknowledge the importance of outright error in language change, the histories of all languages are littered with such cases. Here are some recent ones:

(1) “I’m picking you and I.” (John Feinstein [?], NPR, “ME,” 5/24/93); cf.  “And those two deaths bound you and she together indissolubly for life.” (P. D. James, Shroud for a Nightingale [New York: Popular Library, 1971]: 278)

(2) “He was far more conversant in Islamic jurisprudence than in matters of the heart.” (Andrea Elliott, “Tending to Muslim Hearts and Islam’s Future,” N[ew] Y[ork] T[imes], 3/7/06: A1)

(3) “Their effort is geared at getting out the vote . . .” (Cokie Roberts, commentator, NPR, “ME,”  6/5/06)

(4) “The cup is half-empty, the cup is half-full . . .” [twice in the same interview] (Kevin Starr, State Librarian of California Emeritus, NPR, “Talk of the Nation,” 11/29/07)

The last example is particularly revealing because the speaker doesn’t realize that the locution depends on a transparent container––glass––but for which no liquid could be observed to be measured.


Here is a broad range of hypertrophic examples by category, with commentary when appropriate:


(1) “There was a moment back in 2002 when . . . [opening sentence]” (Caryn James, “Aniston Agonistes: Good Girl, Bad Choices,” NYT, 6/5/06, p. B1)

(2) “But none has gone quite so spectacularly to the bad as John Amery, the elder son of Churchill’s old friend and wartime Secretary of State for India, who ended up being hanged for treason in 1945. Back in 1949 Amery was one of the subjects . . . (John Campbell, “Nasty and Short,” TLS, November 18, 2005)

(3) “back in January” – said in February (unidentified man, viva voce; cf. [way] back [when])

The almost de rigueur contemporary insertion of back before temporal expressions headed by such words as in and when is an innovation in American English (and perhaps in British as well) and an instance of hypertrophy when the time referred to is relatively proximate, not distal.


(4) “The days when blue-collar work could be passed down the family line, those days are over.” (Gay N. Chaison, Prof. of Labor Relations, Clark Univ., quoted in NYT, 11/19/05, p. B7]

(5) my sister-in-law, she . . . [possible interference from Romance langs.]


(6) irregardless         (7) begrudgingly         (8) harken back

(9) informant [vs. informer]                        (10) prior to [instead of before]

(11) “‘He is entirely correct [instead of “right”],’ Mr. Cheney said on Tuesday at Fort Drum, N.Y., referring to Mr. Lieberman.” (NYT, 12/10/05,  p. A1)

(12) “upspike” – on the model of uptick (unidentified woman interviewee, NPR, “ME,” 5/31/06)

(13) purchase [instead of buy]      (14) incorrect [instead of wrong]

(15) academia [ instead of academe]      (16) usage [instead of use]

(17) “For the past 88 years . . . when public sentiment against Germany was at a feverish [instead of “fever pitch”].” (Jim Robbins, “Silence Broken, Pardons Granted 88 Years After Crimes of Sedition,” NYT, 5/3/06, p. 1)

(18) “Clinton will be adjudicated by . . . ” [instead of “judged by”] (William Bennett, “CNN Today,” 12/26/97)

(19) “Can I importune on you for an extra ticket?” (male theater reviewer, viva voce, Los Angeles, 6/4/06)

IV. EXCESSIVE REPETITION [three instead of two – said without emphasis]

(20) day after day after day  (21) side by side by side  (22) step by step by step

(23) “ran down and ran down and ran down . . . ran up and ran up and ran up . . .” (Allan Sloan, commentator, NPR, “Marketplace,” 6/5/06)

V. PLEONASM (NB: standard and semi-standard pleonasms, e. g. friend of mine, advance planning, prior experience, component parts, close scrutiny, etc.)

(24) “share . . . in common”  (Donald Rumsfeld, Secy. of Defense, Press Conference, CNN, 4/15/03)

(25) share . . . similar . . .        (26) exactly right       (27) continue on    (28) equally as

(29) “The ability of the Congress to be able to . . .” (James Sensenbrenner, NBC, “Meet the Press,” as heard on NPR, “ME,” 5/28/06)

(30) “. . . add some additional policemen to patrol . . .” [twice in the same utterance] (Mark A. R. Kleiman, Prof. of Public Policy, UCLA, KPCC.FM, “Zócalo,” 5/28/06); also heard on KPCC.FM: “receive a receipt;” “receive a warm reception”

(31) “With graduation ceremonies coming right up around the corner . . .” (Joel Rubin, Los Angeles Times, interviewed on KPCC.FM, 5/24/06)

(32) “previous precedent” (unidentified male law professor, Northwestern Univ., NPR, “ME,” 1/10/06)

(33) “two minutes twenty-five seconds left on the clock” (Frank Deford, commentator, NPR, “ME,” 12/7/05)

(34) “Moussaui . . . intentionally lied . . .” (Anne Hawke, reporter, NPR News, 4/3/06)

(35) “But far too many seemed to be innocents or lowly foot soldiers . . . ” (Editorial, NYT, 3/8/06, p. A26)

(36) It is simply that simple.” (Sen. Diane Feinstein, quoted in NYT, 1/25/06, p. A16 – also heard on NPR)

(37) “I for one would have very strong opposition to any kind of star chamber proceeding that’s held in private.” (eadem, quoted in NYT Magazine, by William Safire, “On Language,” 1/17/99, p. 18)

(38) “The one statistic that keeps China’s leaders up awake at night is . . . ” (Andy Rothman, stock broker, NPR, Marketplace, 1/16/06)

(39) “As we advance ahead timewise . . .” (Bob Stokes, weather forecaster, The Weather Channel, 10/25/99)

(40) “Each  video contains two 1-hour episodes on each video.” (attributed to Columbia House [home-video mail-order company], by William Safire, “On Language,” NYT Magazine, 7/18/99, [p. ?])

(41) “Currently as of now we have spent . . .” (Rep. Jerry Lewis, “Newshour,” PBS, 7/27/99)

(42) “My other fellow senators . . .” (Sen. Robert Bennett, “CNN Saturday,”  1/23/99)

(43) “. . . four straight days in a row” (stock broker, viva voce, Manchester, Vt., 1999)

(44) “. . . also received cash payments as well.” (unidentified news reader, “World Today,” CNN, 1/24/99)

(45) “. . . increasingly more violent.” (John W. Slattery, letter to the editor, NYT Magazine, [?/?/]99, p. 14)

(46) “Obviously I’m stating the obvious.” (lawyer, viva voce, Manchester, Vt., 6/6/06)

(47) “Kissinger and Putin met at Putin’s country dacha.” (Daniel Schorr, commentator, NPR, “All Things Considered,” 6/7/06); cf. “shrimp scampi,” “PIN number,” etc.

(48) “. . . to move progress [in the Serbia – Kosovo negotiations] forward . . .” (Emily Harris, reporter, NPR, “All Things Considered,” 7/24/06)

(49) “‘It was like, “Oh, my God, we’re on the cusp of something big about to happen“,’ Mr. Washington said.” (Diane Cardwell, “Daring to Believe, Blacks Savor Obama Victory,” NYT, 1/5/08, p. A1)


(50) absolutely            (51) great, tremendous, terrific, awesome, etc.

VII. DEICTIC ADVERB ([out] there, here)

(52) “There’s a real world out here where people are offered . . .” (Ruth Lewin Sime, letter to the editor, NYT, 6/5/06, p. A22).

(53) “There’s a lot of sadness here.” ([in a context where the place has already been stipulated] attributed to Jamie Dettmer, director of media relations, Cato Institute, in “Columnist Resigns His Post, Admitting Lobbyist Paid Him,” NYT, 12/17/05, p. A15)

(54) “Where’s your heart rate at?” (female fitness trainer [with a B.A.], viva voce [speaking to a client wearing a monitor], W. LA, 6/5/06); cf. “What’s your heart rate at?”

The use of the adverbial phrase out there is particularly interesting because it betokens some sort of “avoidance of placeless existence,” if one may call it that.


(55) “The reality is is [that] . . .”    (56) “The fact of the matter is is [that] . . .”


One could easily think that some of these hypertrophies arise from a need to be explicit, to repeat for emphasis, but a close analysis reveals that this is not so. They are all examples of redundancy and tautology. Pleonasms always exhibit a broadening of boundaries, and it is undoubtedly true that boundaries are among the most unstable of linguistic entities, more liable to shift (metanalysis) over time than other such units. But a stereoscopic view of the entire variety of cases where an enlargement has occurred reveals what is at bottom a failure of thought in a “culture of excess.” Linguistic hypertrophy may, in the final analysis, be particularly true of the grammars of historically marginalized groups in society, for whom literacy and education have only recently become as common as among the traditional elites. It would be tempting to speculate that pleonasm and other hypertrophies in speech and writing are––in their aspect of characteristically displaced boundaries––a linguistic manifestation of an unstable social identity.