Something What I Learned


My fourteen-year-old grandson is a prolific writer. He blogs regularly on his favourite football team and has graced the pages of this esteemed organ. Progressively, he needs less and less of my editorial input. But in his final blog of the football season he referred to his ‘most favourite’ moment and I smugly pulled him up on that, informing him that he had committed a tautology. For those of you who have smugly identified my error…read on.

Apart from the rudiments, I did not really learn grammar at school. In primary school we learned what a sentence needed and what a phrase was, that an adverb helped a verb and, well, that was about it. Otherwise, the rules were enforced if we committed a grammatical faux pas either by ritual humiliation or corporal punishment. We learned, but it did not instil a love of grammar in me.

Twitter Snob Lotte Hughes

Every now and again some Twitter troll will pull you up for writing badly when they do not like your argument. Apart from that, grammar Nazis seem few and far between.

Twitter Troll Frances Forbes-Carbines

I did study French and Latin but at the mention of subjunctives, pluperfects or the imperfect tense, my eyes glazed over and something like ‘ladedadedum’ went through my head repeatedly. It still does. I persevered with French and dropped Latin very early in secondary school. This probably explains why, when I was teaching nursing at The University of Edinburgh and one of my students asked if something she was reading was either a gerund or a participle, my reply was “I’ve never heard of either of those diseases but leave it with me and I’ll get back to you.” I still don’t know.

Since then my approach to grammar has been a bit like my approach to art, somewhat Philistine. In art, I know what I Iike. In grammar, I know what reads or sounds right. On top of that I could spot a few errors, tautologies being one of them. Or so I thought.

A good friend was asking about my grandson’s writing, and I told him how well he was progressing and that I made increasingly fewer corrections. His weekly football blogs were nearly perfect, except for the above ‘tautology’.

“Roger, that’s not a tautology, that’s a pleonasm” my friend informed me. And so, at the grand old age of 67 with hundreds of publications to my name I learned a new word. I had never previously heard the word ‘pleonasm’ and realise that I may often have accused others erroneously of tautology rather than pleonasm. Sacre blue!

As every reader will know, but I show them to show that I now know, the terms are distinguished as follows:

‘Pleonasm has a sense of using an unnecessary overabundance of redundant words in one description. Tautology has a sense of saying the exact same in different words, using multiple words with the same meaning.’

I must say, I felt like a ‘stupid idiot’ but I’m still not sure if that is a tautology or a pleonasm!

Such incidents as my friend correcting me fill me with nothing but joy. I am not too old to learn, and I have good friends who will not flinch from helping me to learn. I also realise that there are things to be learned and that is surely as good a reason to get up in the morning as any.

Moreover, I now have new knowledge that I can pass on. I will look and think carefully before I wrongly accuse a pleonast of being a tautologist. No sir, I won’t never make that mistake again.

Roger Watson is a Registered Nurse and Editor-in-Chief of Nurse Education in Practice.