A plea for pleonasm and a rhyme of reason

Oliver Kamm (in Saturday’s Times; no link) criticises an article by David Cameron and Barack Obama:

My main objection to it is the repeated phrase “the reason is because”. It’s a tautology. A reason is, by definition, an explanation why. You don’t need to say “the reason is because … “. It’s enough to say “the reason is that … “.

I don’t like using ‘tautology’ in this way. It’s technically correct: one definition of it is a phrase that contains needless repetition of meaning (such as ‘excessive overdose’ or ‘successfully won’). But it also has a narrower use, to mean a statement – not just a phrase – that is true by definition – such as ‘the overdose was excessive’ or ‘either he will survive it or he will not’. The philosophy graduate in me wants to keep ‘tautology’ for this purpose only.

And why use ‘tautology’ to mean a superfluous redundancy of semantic meaning based on repetitive duplication when we have the wonderful ‘pleonasm’ to do exactly that? ‘Pleonasm’ – think of it as the opposite of an oxymoron – is one of the few words I’ve fallen in love with on first sight.

But I have another point about Kamm’s piece, this one a genuine nit to pick rather than an aesthetic difference. He continues:

I know that Tennyson wrote in The Charge of the Light Brigade: “Theirs not to reason why,/ Theirs but to do and die.” And it would have ruined the scansion and destroyed the emotional impact if he’d said: “Theirs not to ask why … “.

This is a failure of perspective. ‘Reason’ as quoted here is a verb, like ‘wonder’ or, yes, ‘ask’. It’s not a noun like ‘explanation’. That, rather than the scansion or emotional tone, is the reason that ‘reason why’ is fine here.

Memo to Tennyson’s ghost: ‘wonder why’ would have kept your scansion intact and given you an alliteration to go with ‘do and die’. Then again, ‘reason’ conveys more of a sense of intellectual deliberation than ‘wonder’. I suppose your way just about works.

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