Grammar Moses: 'Redundancy' argument worth repeating
In last week's column I fielded a letter from a reader who feels headlines are often unfair to trains or, presumably, the engineers who operate them.
That's understandable, given that trains cannot stop on a dime or swerve to avoid collisions. And that leaves people crossing tracks or their vehicles generally at fault when a train comes into contact with someone or something.
Former state Rep. Paul Froehlich came up with a few options he thought would cast the train and engineer in a better light:
• "Car stopped on tracks causes train collision"
• "Truck driving around lowered gate gets hit by train"
• "Train hits pedestrian running across tracks"
The simple image of a car stopped on the tracks assesses blame -- whether with the driver or the car -- so "causes train collision" seems redundant to me. I'd rather go with "Car stuck on tracks hit by train."
Brevity is an important factor in writing headlines.
I like Paul's approach to the second and third examples, but in this case I feel it's important to put the person first: "Truck driving around gates struck by train" tells you it's likely the truck driver's fault. Or if we know what happened to the occupant(s) of the truck, "X killed when train hits truck." In most cases, you'll want to put the human toll -- the most important thing -- before the how.
And "Pedestrian crossing tracks struck by train."
Yes, there is passive voice in all three, which I normally would not approve of, but in these cases I think putting the people at the head of the headline is appropriate.
There are times when -- like your loquacious neighbor -- I get so wrapped up in what I'm writing that I forget to make a point.
That apparently was the case last week when I was talking about the difference between "repetition" and "redundancy."
When something is redundant it is superfluous, no longer needed.
Mary Lou Wehrli quoted the character of Mammy in "Gone With the Wind."
"It ain't fittin'. It just ain't fittin'. Ain't fittin'."
"Perhaps redundancy is appropriate, even necessary in this case, where a lesser 'educated' person grasps the moral high ground and has no other words to express her strong opinion," she wrote.
When in doubt, I try to boil concepts into mathematical equations. Call it my quirk.
Redundancy = repetition -- purpose.
Does that make sense? May Loud didn't like it, but perhaps you might agree.
Mammy was amplifying her frustration by repeating herself. Not one "ain't fittin'" was superfluous.
The Rev. Paul Palmer (ret.) wrote the following:
"Many years ago in one of my classes at Princeton Theological Seminary, our homiletics professor, in teaching young preachers how to do their thing in the pulpit, offered this bit of advice: 'Never repeat for emphasis.' After a pause he continued more forcefully, 'Never repeat for emphasis!' Needless to say, it got a laugh from all of us. But the lesson stuck with me. Repetition should be used sparingly in public speaking. Nonetheless, if the speaker (or writer) has a central point that needs to be remembered, then a degree of redundancy or repetition may be in order."
This was the point at which I realized I had left y'all hanging last week.
My response to Paul, after providing the definitions:
"If I may step into your line of work, I think the 'and ever' at the end of the Lord's Prayer is redundant. We've already established that 'Yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.'
"So why is 'forever' followed by 'and ever' when 'forever' is, well, endless?"
There is only one thing Paul would say is more than forever -- God.
Finally, Augie Tonne chimed in with this:
"Following up on today's redundancy column, one that always gets me is 'The team has won its last four games in a row.' Is there such a case where the last four games are not in a row? Shouldn't it simply be, "The team has won its last four games?"
Yes, indeedy, Augie.
• Jim Baumann is vice president/executive editor of the Daily Herald. You can buy Jim's book, "Grammar Moses: A humorous guide to grammar and usage," at grammar mosesthebook.com. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org and put "Grammar Moses" in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at facebook.com/baumannjim.