Writing the other day at Lingua Franca, Ben Yagoda took gentle exception to my expressed distaste (read: contempt) for some of the common pleonasms that crop up in journalism: close proximity and safe haven among the frequent targets of my scorn.
These are, he thinks, merely “emphatic redundancies” than great sins, and he argues, “If you are among the most mindful writers, you tend to avoid them. Sharpshooting them in your own or someone else’s prose can be a moderately satisfying pastime, like picking little pieces of lint off a sweater, or unitalicizing the commas after each book title in a list. But they really don’t hurt anyone, and there are so many worse writing problems, like vagueness, incorrect word choice, and word repetition. Moreover, they fly by so swiftly that they aren’t truly wasting a reader’s time.”
(Yes, reader, I convert italicized commas to roman when they follow italicized titles in a series, and so should you.)
His favorite emphatic redundancy is Lew Welch’s slogan for an advertiser: “RAID KILLS BUGS DEAD.”
There is a good deal of sense in what he says. Safe haven has become such a stock phrase that it probably cannot be eliminated. And carrying on about these largely innocent lapses does constitute, though Professor Yagoda is too kind to use the word, fussbudgetry.
Let me explain what pushes me over the line into fussbudgetry. These “emphatic redundancies” might carry a charge of emphasis if I ever saw mention in reporters’ copy of a haven or proximity. But I don’t. It’s all emphasis, all the time, an effort to make the mundane events the writer describes look Important. They’re all, in their little way, “lookee-here” gestures to the reader. And usually they don’t work, because they’re feeble, and readers can always tell what’s boring, no matter how it’s tricked up.
Every day I encounter the waxy yellow buildup of stock phrases and cliches in the copy I edit. They infest journalistic writing, because mechanical writing is what writers resort to when they have to turn out a large volume of text in a short time.
These stock phrases that infest text bring out the fussbudget in me. I can’t ever hope to stomp them all out, but the ones I kill, I kill dead.