Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Subtle Things #3: Department of Redundancy Department

When is something redundant, and when is something repeated for emphasis?

Repeating things to remind the readers of facts is a different issue -- I just spun that off into a separate post. This is an extension of Subtle Things #2, using adverbs, because many adverbs are in fact redundant once you use a more specific verb.

In general, you don't want to over-use words too much. We've all had situations where a semi-common word just happens to crop up three times in two sentences, and it jars the eye. It starts to draw attention to itself.* The danger then is in hitting the thesaurus too hard in the search for synonyms to keep from repeating yourself too much. That's its own problem: using the wrong word because you were so paranoid of using the right word again.

How much is too much? When does the thesaurus steer you wrong? These are judgement calls. Subtle things.

Redundancy also strikes in giving the reader information inefficiently. It happens a lot with actions involving directions -- see #1 and #2 below. These are attempts to be clear about the action, and there's nothing intrinsically wrong with that. But. IMO, it becomes a trust issue at a certain point. I'll explain more when I talk about the examples individually.

There's nothing grammatically wrong with the following sentences (all from Disciple.)
  1. Frida reached up to take [the baby] down and kiss his cheek.
  2. He slung [the severed head] and the envoy caught it in his belly, falling back onto his ass from the impact.
  3. His sword fell from his skeletal hand and he screamed, his companions screamed, and none of them saw Sir Rostislav coming.
  4. Anders touched the knot of kir it offered and knit it into shape, twisted it and pushed it into the sphere’s surface.
Well, okay, you can argue about my grammar but this post's about redundancy and repetition.
  1. Why is this a "trust issue?" It's not obvious, out of context like this: the baby is being carried by a rider, and Frida is standing on the ground beside the horse. If she's going to reach for the baby, of course she's reaching up. If she's going to take the baby from the rider and kiss him, of course there will be downward movement involved. Therefore, up and down are redundant, and I'm trusting the reader to know that. Because my readers are smart, observant people. If this were, say, the first sentence of the scene and there was no context, I would leave it as it is.
  2. Back, here is redundant for obvious reasons. If you're catching a high-velocity thing in the gut, it's going to be awful hard to fall any way but back. Don't insult your readers' intelligence. They are smart, observant people. 
  3. Repetition for emphasis. Something horrible just happened, and I want the reactions to hit the reader for extra oomph. Plus, in my head the close repetition echoes that microsecond it takes to realize what just happened and react: the guy it happened to first, then those close by him. I'm thinking I'm going to also use this sentence in a post about long vs. short sentences. One sentence, or three? 
  4. It is a very common word and it can put up with a lot of repetition. But this is a bit much, for my tastes. The third it is redundant. The first one refers to something in the previous sentence. This could stand some re-wording for clarity; I'll have to consider the whole passage for that. 
*There was an episode of Star Trek: TNG which drove me up the wall with this. It was a holodeck episode, casting Data as Sherlock Holmes, and the word footfalls was massively over-used. It got painful to watch, halfway through. Uncommon words need to be used sparingly so they keep their effectiveness.

How much is too much, for you?


Liz said...

There's clear and then there's hitting the reader over the head with the information. Yeah, I have a few redundancy issues (that I'm dealing with now).

Although, I remember seeing something about Agatha Christie's work, and they were discussing how she would reuse certain words several times over the course of a page or chapter to emphasize the emotion or idea she was going for. I remember it struck me as being overly redundant, but they were praising her for it.

Daniel said...

If I notice the redundancy, it is too much. I'll choose a different phrase or rewrite the entire passage so the redundancy isn't necessary.

Your example with the directional words (up, back, down) being redundant is a bit more subtle. Those words can help emphasize something else about the situation, like how uncomfortable it might be to lean [down] while on horseback and potentially lose your seat. In that case, you might use "down" to emphasize the potential for falling.

Ultimately, I apply the same rule to all of these examples: if it stands out, I try to fix it. I like to avoid anything that might make the reader pause.

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