What’s wrong with this essay?

Read this short essay and see if you notice anything.

My fellow countrymen, I speak to you as coequals, knowing you are deserving of the honest truth. And let me warn you in advance, my subject matter concerns a serious crisis caused by an event in my past history: the execution-style killing of a security guard on a delivery truck. At that particular point in time, I found myself in a deep depression, making mental errors which seemed as though they might threaten my future plans. I am not over-exaggerating.

I needed a new beginning, so I decided to pay a social visit to a personal friend with whom I share the same mutual objectives and who is one of the most unique individuals I have ever personally met. The end result was an unexpected surprise. When I reiterated again to her the fact that I needed a fresh start, she said I was exactly right; and, as an added plus, she came up with a final solution that was absolutely perfect.

Based on her past experience, she felt we needed to join together in a common bond for a combined total of twenty-four hours a day, in order to find some new initiatives. What a novel innovation! And, as an extra bonus, she presented me with the free gift of a tuna fish. Right away I noticed an immediate positive improvement. And although my recovery is not totally complete, the sum total is I feel much better now knowing I am not uniquely alone.

At some point you it should have dawned on you that the essay is full of pleonasms, a certain kind of redundancy. The above essay, titled Count the Superfluous Redundant Pleonastic Tautologies, was written by comedian George Carlin.

George Orwell also harshly criticized this style of writing in his essay Politics and the English Language that he said was easy to fall into which he attributed to laziness on the part of the writer.

As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.

As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for the words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious.

[W]ords, like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern. This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases (lay the foundations, achieve a radical transformation) can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.

As a blogger writing rapidly with little time to carefully revise and polish, I undoubtedly commit many of the sins that Carlin and Orwell identify. I try to be on my guard against such infelicities that, ironically, are more likely to occur when my writing is going particularly smoothly and the words just flow out because that’s when you drop your guard. That’s the honest truth.


  1. machintelligence says

    Reading that post was a totally unique experience. (When they made me quit splitting infinitives, I took to modifying superlatives in retaliation.)

  2. Thud says

    I blew right by the annoying pleonasms since I’m somewhat inured to poor language everywhere on Internet.
    Who killed the security guard?
    What was the immediate improvement?
    I’m content-oriented, but aware of format/style issues. There are major content issues here more significant than the editorial considerations. Except that the illustration is about style, not content.
    I revised the above thrice before posting.

  3. Lesbian Catnip says

    We don’t want the honest truth, we want the dishonest truth.

    But do you say that as my equal, or my coequal?!

  4. StevoR says

    Dishonest truth is an oxymoron.

    Writing isn’t always easy and there are various styles and modes which we pick and shift between.
    This is kinda axiomatic.

    Pleonasms I have not heard of before. So didn’t see them there but did see cliches, tautologies (eg. unexpected surprise) and “pollywaffle” there. Also seemed disjointed (three very separate speeches?) and hard to read, with unclear meaning and context. Maybe worth deconstructing, maybe just white noise casting designed to throw people off and make it seem like something’s been said when nothing much has really been said at all?

    I’m certainly no metaphorical angel when it comes to writing sloppily and ungrammatically and using cliches and figures of speech and struggling for clarity at times too. Reckon everyone (almost?) does this at times just “some more than others” to paraphrase Orwell.

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