or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Again and again (and again)

Yesterday I used the word "redundant", and I thought it would be fun to talk about it a bit. In day-to-day English usage it has an entirely negative connotation (we even joke about it when we detect it in someone's speech: "Hello, Department of Redundancy Department?"), but in grammatical terms it's enormously useful. In fact, it's crucial to language.

Take the unexceptional sentence "All those buildings are factories." Five words, and four of them--any four--contain grammatical redundancy, because each of them contains a plural marker. In context, "all" can refer only to more than one thing; "those" is the plural of "that"; "buildings" has the "-s" suffix which marks it as the plural form of the noun "building"; "are" is the plural form of "is"; and "factories" not only has the suffix "-s", it has a spelling change which occurs when a word ending in "-y" is pluralized. Any one of these ought to be sufficient to cast the entire sentence in the plural, and yet the sentence is correct only if all the markers are present.

Why should this be? Why is grammatical redundancy universal? Because language evolved to fit the world around us, and because everybody's world has certain things in common. We don't transmit information flawlessly, nor do we receive it that way: perhaps we're talking through a mouthful of food, or yelling over a thunderstorm; perhaps we're not listening attentively, or perhaps our hearing is starting to go. Redundancy helps ensure that the message gets through intact. If we marked only one element of a sentence as plural, or randomly marked some and not others, there's the chance our message would be misunderstood: "Did she mean for me to brand only one of the cows, or all of them?". Language has built-in mechanisms so that people can make their meaning known.

English is a piker when it comes to really deep-seated redundancy. French, for example, has two genders (German has three!), each with its own articles, and certain nouns and most adjectives have endings for these genders which must also agree: depending on gender, "The Canadian manager" (note that there are no gender markers in English) is rendered "le gérant canadien" or "la gérante canadienne", three gender markers in a three-word expression.


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