Avoid Snacking on Linguistic Bonbons

Rob Kyff on

We all have our nasty little habits: binge-eating potato chips, chomping on gum and reading columns about words. And we fall into bad habits when it comes to language as well.

Instinctively, we pop two-word phrases into our mouths like lollipops: cautious optimism, ongoing relationship, serious contender, rising tensions, spiraling costs.

After a while, certain phrases become knee-jerk reactions. Every suburb is "exclusive," every alternative is "viable," every bystander is "innocent," every escape is "narrow" and every reaction is "knee-jerk." Hey, wait a minute!

During the past troubled year, we've become especially dependent on our inseparable pandemic pals. I'll bet you can supply the missing word in each phrase: --- tracing; --- distancing; --- of caution; --- normal; --- immunity; --- workers; --- spreader; --- learning. And, yes, there are some variants: --- variant (U.K., South African, Brazilian).

Another bad habit is redundancy. Without thinking, we sprinkle sugar on words that are already sweet: general consensus, final conclusions, basic fundamentals, component parts, upward surges, advance planning.

We cancel out, continue on, focus in on, preplan and prerecord. We whisper softly, scream loudly, revert back and progress forward.

We cram unnecessary prepositional phrases into our mouths like bonbons. We say people are arrogant in attitude, popular with others and outgoing in personality; fabric is soft to the touch, books are stimulating to the reader and boxes are square in shape.

No one plans -- or even preplans -- to write or speak this way; we do it by habit. To help you kick the habit, see whether you can find nine redundancies in this paragraph:


As my friends and I drove for a distance of 5 miles, we talked with one another about future plans and new innovations. Then we saw a pedestrian dressed in a blue-colored suit walking near a square-shaped building. He was circling around the block.

Redundant words: for a distance of; with one another; future; new; dressed; colored; walking (we already know he's a pedestrian); shaped; around.

So, the revised version would read: "As my friends and I drove 5 miles, we talked about plans and innovations. Then we saw a pedestrian in a blue suit near a square building. He was circling the block."

You might call the economy of that revised paragraph an "unexpected surprise." Oops.


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2021 Creators Syndicate Inc.



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