When a sidewalk is blocked by construction in New York City – and this burg has 280 miles of scaffolding, according to The New York Times – pedestrians are typically diverted to a “pedestrian walkway.”
Found on signs all over New York and elsewhere, that redundant phrase bothers me probably more than it should, but I point it out for a reason. In security measures, redundancy is good. In language, it’s bad.
“Pedestrian walkway” is a trivial example; it doesn’t actually hurt anyone, except for bruising the feelings of hypersensitive language mavens. But it’s so unnecessary. The word “pedestrian” means someone who’s walking. The plain word “walkway” would be sufficient to indicate the “way” we’re supposed to “walk.”
A redundancy that really galls me is the phrase “fiction novel,” which I see all the time in press releases announcing new books. Typically, to be fair, these are announcements written not by professional press representatives but by the books’ authors themselves. Still, while a manager of a construction site need not, I suppose, be language-savvy, a novelist, I would hope, would be. Yet so many seem ignorant of the most basic facts about what they’ve just spent months or years doing – writing a novel, which is by definition a work of fiction.
Here’s another example from everyday life. Airport terminal announcements are now phrased like this: “This is the last and final boarding call for Flight 123.” The last and final call. As if stringing together two words that mean exactly the same thing will give stragglers a harder kick in the pants to get to their gate.
Of course there’s the old standby (speaking of airports), the “free gift.” Effective marketing-speak for decades if not centuries, it shows no sign of imminent departure.
In rhetoric, such a redundancy is called a pleonasm, and if there’s a Greek word for it, surely it has a place in discourse.
But redundancy should be used sparingly, and only when it contributes to rhetorical effect or provides necessary emphasis. Redundant language may create an insistent tone, and when used artfully it can provide effective emphasis. But all too often, what it’s really signaling is overcompensation for insecurity and doubt.