Striking the Surplus from Tautologies (Follow-Up 1)



newsletter article in late April addressed the matter of the tautology (also known as a pleonasm), the “needless repetition of an idea, statement, or word.” We provided several such examples of overweight phrases and suggested how to trim them back into shape.

Several readers responded in defense of certain phrases, sharing that what seemed to be a modifier repeating a noun’s meaning was in fact integral to communicative clarity.

The phrases receiving the most feedback deserve further review to support a wider understanding of why the careful writer will work to tighten them.

Today and next week we’ll address the top three. We’ll begin with the phrase receiving the most comments:

Contested Tautology #1: Vast Majority

Many readers felt the adjective vast is needed for the concept of far more than half of a group. According to several, majority alone could mean 51 percent, a slim majority. Without vast, the reader might not realize the majority was much greater, perhaps 90 percent.

To explore the issue further, we’ll first look at common definitions of majority from two popular sources:

[dictionary.com]
1. the greater part or number; the number larger than half the total (opposed to minority).
2. a number of voters or votes, jurors, or others in agreement, constituting more than half of the total number.
3. the amount by which the greater number, as of votes, surpasses the remainder (distinguished from plurality).

[Merriam-Webster]
3 a: a number or percentage equaling more than half of a total (a majority of voters, a two-thirds majority); b: the excess of a majority over the remainder of the total (margin won by a majority of 10 votes); c: the greater quantity or share (the majority of the time).

At the outset, advocating for either slim or vast to convey the degree of a majority seems reasonable. At the same time, we want to reinforce our mission to be careful, attentive writers and grammarians. This involves being specific to avoid varying interpretations.

To that aim, we’ll ask ourselves what a vast majority is. To some, it could be 67 percent; to others, 73 percent; and to yet others, perhaps the most justified, 92 percent.

Conversely, a slim majority could be perceived as 59 percent, 62 percent, or, among the most justified, 51 percent.

Rather than write “The bill passed by a slim majority,” write “The bill barely passed with 52 percent of the vote.” Rather than write “A vast majority of stockholders believe company leadership should change,” write “Eighty-three percent of stockholders believe company leadership should change” or “More than three-fourths of stockholders…” Such specifics serve your readers (or listeners) to a greater effect.

The noun phrase can still be classified as a tautology depending on how the definition of majority is being applied. However, we also expand the matter to be one of precision (as opposed to solely an instance of a repetitive noun and modifier).

We put forth that potentially tautological phrases such as slim majority and vast majority are acceptable in writing if they are supported by information that specifies what the slim or vast majority is—e.g., charts, graphs, percentage numbers in text.

Next week we’ll revisit the tautologies identical match and invited guest.

Posted on Tuesday, August 8, 2017, at 11:26 pm

4 Comments on Striking the Surplus from Tautologies (Follow-Up 1)

4 responses to “Striking the Surplus from Tautologies (Follow-Up 1)”

  1. Steve AuBuchon says:

    But the issue was not whether “vast majority” could be written more clearly. The issue was whether or not it was a tautology. I believe you, in a round about way, have agreed that it is not by calling it a “potential tautology.” As for writing it more clearly, I completely concur with your assessment.

  2. Chad Dick says:

    Not all writers will have exact details at their fingertips (such as percentages in a vote), which does not mean they have nothing valid to write. Also, writers write for different reasons, only one of which is to impart exact information. Others might be writing to persuade the reader on a particular subject. If 60% of people agreed with me that ‘vast majority’ is not a tautology, and I needed to persuade you that it is not, I would prefer to write that the vast majority agreed with me. Sixty percent isn’t so great. For good measure, I would probably throw in that they were the vast majority of right-thinking people! Haha. Language is such fun. Keep up the good work.

  3. Janet Walker says:

    Thank you for taking precious time to explain why you made the tautological assertions you presented in your April newsletter. I love that you stand your ground and not allow others’ flawed education to alter what you know to be grammatically correct. Keep up the good work!

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