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Pleonasm is a rhetorical device that occurs when a writer uses two or more words to express an idea.

That is, a pleonasm uses a phrase with redundant or tautological words rather than a single word that would’ve been sufficient on its own. As a tautology, some find these examples to be over the top and unnecessary, especially when it comes to academic writing. But, in verse, there are many possible ways that a writer might use the rhetorical device to benefit their work.

Pleonasm pronunciation: plea-oh-nah-zem

Pleonasm definition and examples


Definition of Pleonasm

The word “pleonasm” comes from the Greek meaning “excess.” It occurs when a writer uses synonymous, or also synonymous, words together to define an experience, idea, person, etc. One of the two words (or more depending on the example) is unnecessary for the reader’s understanding. The device appears intentionally when a writer wants to create emphasis and unintentionally as a mistake. 


Types of Pleonasm 

  • Syntactic: this type of pleonasm occurs when optional and unnecessary functional words are used. “That” is a common example. For example, writing “She said that you went to the store” means the same thing as “She said you went to the store.” Removing these functional words often makes writing feel smoother and less cluttered.
  • Semantic: this type of pleonasm is concerned with the writer’s style. A common example is “tuna fish,” in which “tuna” refers to a type of fish. Or “PIN number” in which the “N” in “PIN” means “number.” “ATM machine” is another similar example in which the “M” in “ATM” means “machine.” 


Examples of Pleonasm in Literature 

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare 

In this famous history play, William Shakespeare relays the story of Caesar’s assassination and the resulting events concerning Brutus, Cassius, and Mark Antony. In the following passage, there is a good and quite well-known example of pleonasm. 

And as he plucked his cursèd steel away,

Mark how the blood of Caesar followed it,

As rushing out of doors, to be resolved

If Brutus so unkindly knocked, or no.

For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar’s angel.

Judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar loved him!

This was the most unkindest cut of all.

The final line uses the phrase “the most unkindest cut of all.” By using “most” in addition to “unkindest,” he maintains the meter in the line while also further emphasizing the “unkind” nature of Caesar’s death. 


Hamlet by William Shakespeare

In Act II Scene 2, there is a good example of a pleonasm in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This famous tragedy follows the life and death of the protagonist, and those around him, as he spirals into madness. The following lines are spoken by Polonius to Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother and Queen of Denmark. He says: 

I will be brief: your noble son is mad.

Mad call I it, for, to define true madness,

What is ’t but to be nothing else but mad?

But let that go

In these lines, Polonius repetitively stresses the fact that Hamlet has lost his mind. He’s gone “mad,” Polonius says. He then adds “Mad call I it,” an unnecessary addition that does not add anything to the Queen’s reception of the text other than to emphasize his belief. He continues on, suggesting that being mad, as Hamlet is, is the definition of madness. In response, the Queen asks that Polonius speak to her more clearly with “less art.” The following lines also include examples of pleonasm: 

Madam, I swear I use no art at all.

That he is mad, ’tis true. Tis true, ’tis pity,

And pity ’tis ’tis true—a foolish figure,

The repetitive use of “’tis” in these lines is another example, as is the use of “That” in the second line of the excerpt. 

Explore William Shakespeare’s poetry. 


City of Beasts by Isabel Allende 

In Isabel Allende’s City of Beasts, a young adult novel originally published in Spanish, readers can find the following example of pleonasm: 

These terrible things I have seen with my own eyes, and I have heard with my own ears, and touched with my own hands.

In this passage, the writer uses “my” and “own” next to one another three times. The use of repetition is extremely effective but unnecessary for a reader’s understanding of the text. In academic work, this type of writing would be labeled as tautological and feel out of place. But, in creative writing, it makes far more sense. In these literary works, it is more about creating an experience for the reader and transporting them to an interesting environment. 


Why Do Writers Use Pleonasm? 

Writers use pleonasm on purpose and on accident. When it’s used purposefully, it is usually for emphasis. In the above examples, the writers included pleonastic phrases in order to ensure the reader paid attention to certain portions of the writing. It can also make writing feel more poetic than it would otherwise.


Oxymoron or Pleonasm 

These two literary terms have much in common. They both refer to groups of words that are used to describe an experience. But, an oxymoron is the opposite of pleonasm. The former refers to examples where two contrasting words are put together. For example: “honest thief” or “pleasurable pain.” A pleonasm is a combination of words all of which mean the same thing. For example, “my own,” “black darkness,” and “terrifying fear.” 


Related Literary Terms 

  • Coherence: refers to the properties of well-organized writing. This includes grammar, sentence structure, and plot elements.
  • Hypotaxis: the arrangement of constructs in grammar. It refers to the placement of functionally similar although unequal constructions.
  • Tmesis: a rhetorical device that involves inserting a word in-between a compound word or phrase.
  • Amplification: a rhetorical device that’s used to improve a sentence or statement with additional information.
  • Anacoluthon: when the writer changes the expected grammatical structure of a sentence and interrupts it with another sentence.
  • Chiasmus: a rhetorical device that occurs when the grammatical structure of a previous phrase or clause is reversed or flipped.


Other Resources 

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