Friday, January 19, 2007

Slippery Verbal Redundancy

I'm always intrigued by redundant modifiers. Why does the media insist on using phrases like "brutally raped" and "brutally murdered?" Is it possible someone could be gently raped, or tenderly murdered? And what does it mean to be "cautiously optimistic?" What would you make of someone whose optimism was heedless or wild-eyed?

Sometimes the second clause of a sentence means everything. In the summer of '05 I saw a huge poster in a record store: "Sin City DVD, Available Now!" Excited, I approached more closely, and saw the next line, in significantly smaller print: "for pre-order."

Leave aside for the moment the redundancy in the notion of pre-ordering something... probably it's just what you do once you've finished pre-planning. What really got me was the 180 degree turn the second clause caused. Available now for pre-order? If you can only order it, that's the precise definition of *not* available! Sheesh.

Anyway, I paused today when I saw this first sentence in a New York Times article:

"General George Casey, the top American commander in Iraq, said today that the additional troops being sent to Iraq could begin to be withdrawn by late summer if security conditions improve in Baghdad."

That "if" clause interests me, much in the way of the unnecessary "brutal" qualifier. It made me wonder, was there some possibility the troops *wouldn't* be withdrawn if Baghdad's security conditions improve? Doesn't it go without saying that if security conditions improve, we'll start bringing home our troops?

So... why the redundant clause?

Because most people won't notice it. They'll focus instead on the first part of the sentence, and indeed the headline of the article is, "U.S. May Cut Troops in Iraq by Summer, General Says." That sounds like good news, the kind of good news that will maintain domestic support for the war. Then, later, when the good news fails to materialize, the general can point to that exculpatory "if" clause, and note that the necessary condition, sadly, hasn't been fulfilled. Benefits of the first clause today; benefits of the escape clause tomorrow.

I couldn't help thinking of the following pristine example of having one's verbal cake and eating it, too, from then Director of Central Intelligence Porter Goss's February '05 Congressional testimony:

"It may be only a matter of time before al Qaeda or other groups attempt to use chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons."

"Only a matter of time" means it's inevitable: not whether, but when. For example, for each of us, death is only a matter of time. Death is inevitable. With regard to AQ and WMD, this is scary rhetoric! And therefore not a bad way to increase your budget while simultaneously sounding prescient should disaster strike. But wait... it only "may" be a matter of time. Which means, it might not be inevitable... but wait, if something might not be inevitable, isn't that the same as saying it's *not* inevitable?

If a WMD attempt (that's smooth, too... it doesn't have to be an actual attack, just an "attempt," however that might be defined) happens, Goss gets to say, "Told you it was inevitable." If it doesn't happen, he gets to say, "I only said it may be inevitable, not that it was inevitably inevitable." As Borat would say, Nice!

George Orwell put it best: “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”

Ask yourself, why does the government feel compelled to play these verbal games with regard to Iraq?


Anonymous said...

Somedays I feel like politicians are so obsessed with manipulating the thoughts of the 'common cattle' that they've forgotten we have brains and that we can think.

They let us believe a misconception when it suits their purposes (i.e. 9/11=Iraq) and have a way to backtrack when the public catches on. That "if" this summer may be misinterpreted now, but if people manage not to notice it now, they're going to notice it this summer.

Sadly, the ones who aren't duped just stop bothering to listen to lies and half-truths and propaganda. I suppose that suits their purposes just fine, too.

aaron said...

Drunkards drink. Thieves steal. Fighters fight. And, as follows, liars lie.

"Water is wet, the sky is blue, and..."

(Bruce Willis in The Last Boy Scout)

Anonymous said...

I think it's because the more words you use, the less people pay attention.

Mark Terry said...

I thought of your post today while listening to a BBC report on US troops in Baghdad. The announcer said something along the lines of, "...a campaign which the Pentagon is calling pre-planned..."

I really had to mull over pre-planned. It seems to me that you either have a plan or you don't. A plan may be a disaster, it may be a poor plan, it may, in fact, suck like an Electrolux, but you've either got one or you don't.

So if something is pre-planned, does that mean the operation went on BEFORE there was a plan? (And if that's what that means, doesn't that mean, er, they didn't have a plan?)

So yes, Barry, you're quite correct. I wonder if it's intentional muddying of language, an indication of a lack of coherence in terms of the English language in general, or a lack of coherence in terms of the English language on the part of the Pentagon and the Bush Administration.

Mark Terry

Anonymous said...

For me, verbal games have always been part of the political landscape. Qualifying statements with 'may', 'possible' or other conditional words simply give the speaker a way out. And I agree with pari. If enough rhetoric is used, people tend to tune out what they believe to be irrelevant, when perhaps those words are the most important of all. Iraq, Iran, and even our own border issues are simply more examples of the same.

Debra Parmley said...

Here's one that used to drive me crazy when I worked at the newspaper. (In advertising sales because it paid the student loans better than reporting would have.)

"First Annual ....."

How can something be annual if it hasn't even happened yet?

But you never argue with your advertisers. Not if you want to keep your publisher happy and pay those student loans.

Anonymous said...

Pre-ordering implies that you can order before the item has been released. It is, therefore, not really redundant. Ordering something that is publicly available is different than placing an order for something not released for the purpose of reserving one of said item.

As for the other redundancies, I agree.

Illusive Mind said...

Great point about possible inevitablity. What a contradiction!