Sunday, 5 April 2009

On also, too

Two correspondents write recently with the same concern. One says: 'Yesterday I came across a sentence in a local newspaper: Have you ever tried Chinese food yet?', and he asks: is it right to have both ever and yet in the same sentence? The other asks whether one can have also and too in the same sentence, citing this example (about Shakespeare): And he is also pretty high up in the league of affixers too.

Well, seeing as the second sentence is from a paper of mine, I guess my answer has to be yes! So let me explain why.

There is a literary critical tradition in English that all repeated meaning is a bad thing. Tautology is a deadly sin, according to stylists. Fowler, for example, came down strongly against people who 'fail to notice that they are wasting words by expressing twice over in a sentence some part of it that is indeed essential but needs only one expression.'

The issue, of course, is whether the repetition is an identical expression of meaning or not. The prescriptive temperament tended to condemn anything that was even slightly repetitive, ignoring the nuances of emphasis and aspect that subtle speaking and writing can convey, and failing to appreciate the way adverbs in different parts of a sentence have different modifying roles.

What's happening in the 'Chinese food' example? First, by repeating the notion, the speaker is adding extra emphasis to the time reference. Secondly, he is adding a nuance, as 'ever' looks backwards in time while 'yet' looks forwards. And thirdly, there are different pragmatic issues involved. If someone asked:

Have you ever tried Chinese food?

the question is very general. It is asking you to think back into your past and remember an occasion when you tried Chinese food. It is a new topic of conversation, presupposing no prior discourse history. By contrast, if someone asked:

Have you tried Chinese food yet?

the question is more likely to be alluding to a previous discourse. We've had this conversation before, and now I'm raising the subject again.

A lot depends on the intonation, of course. If the stress falls on the verb, the speaker could be construed as querying a state of mind.

A I don't like Chinese food.
B Have you ever tried Chinese food?
A Well no, actually...

As for the 'Shakespeare' example, my two adverbs have very different directions of modification. This can be seen if we view the sentence in context.

Shakespeare is the doyen of functional shifters. And he is also pretty high up in the league of affixers too.

The role of the also is to relate pretty high up to the doyen. The role of the too is to relate league of affixers to functional shifters. I want to make two emphatic comparisons here, not one.

In both cases, the message is clear. We need to see a supposed tautology in its discourse context, and not just within a single sentence. Only when that context has been eliminated might we justifiably condemn a usage as tautologous also as well.


  1. Great entry.

    And there is a question that promptly comes to me, may I ask your advice on "Is tautology necessarily bad?"?

    I quite believe that it on some occasions serves as emphasis or reassurance.

  2. The problem is that the word 'tautology' has a pejorative meaning. The OED definition runs: 'The repetition (esp. in the immediate context) of the same word or phrase, or of the same idea or statement in other words: usually as a fault of style'. So to say that something is a tautology is generally to condemn it. That's why I prefer to use a more neutral expression, such as 'repetition'.

  3. To my Canadian ear, the word over in Fowler’s “wasting words by expressing twice over in a sentence” is redundant. The Fowler usage in that example illustrates the Crystal advice, since Fowler no doubt intends the extra word to add a nuance.

  4. Context is so often ignored by peeveologists. It's as if they really think people speak and write in individual, free-standing sentences.

    It baffles me.

  5. Well, I have to confess that I cannot see what is gained by the use of both "ever" and "yet" in "Have you ever tried Chinese food yet?'". It is not so much a tautology, to my way of thinking, as a conflation of tenses, as if the speaker were uncertain as to whether he was asking about the past or the present. But whether tautology or tense conflation, I don't like the construction, and would certainly seek to avoid it in writing if not in speech.

  6. That's up to you, whether you like it or not - but be aware that you will encounter it often. Note that we don't have a 'conflation' here, but a change of time perspective as the sentence proceeds.

  7. Thank you, I stand corrected. I thought it was a conflation, by analogy with the 3rd sense of "conflation" given by the OED (1933 ed.) : "The combination or fusion of two variant readings of a text into a composite reading". In this case, there were clearly not two variant readings but rather (to my mind) two different thought processes that led to one (apparently) inconsistent construction.

  8. "Have you ever tried Chinese food to date?" Same thing.

  9. Wandering (as one does) from linguistic web log to linguistic web log, I found myself at Jack Windsor Lewis's site where I read "A pleonasm :

    I wonder if anyone else is like me a bit worried by the blatant superfluousness of the word both in expressions like the one I most recently heard attributed to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton viz ...both America and China need to work together."

    So if "Have you ever tried Chinese food yet ?" doesn't qualify as a tautology, does it perhaps qualify as a pleonasm ?

  10. The term pleonasm is a bit different, as it focuses on the concept of superfluity rather than repetition - words that are unnecessary. However, it shares with tautology its prescriptive stylistic stance, and doesn't explain why people use 'extra' words in the first place. There's a widespread expectation, fostered by editorial practice, that written language is economical of expression, so the Hillary Clinton example would very likely be corrected in print. But in speech the mental process of rapid planning often leads to duplications of this kind. In the present example, the speaker evidently decided to start with 'both America and China', perhaps anticipating a verb such as 'cooperate', but then changed her mind and used 'work together' instead. Switches of this kind usually pass unnoticed - unless you're a public figure and people are analysing everything you say minutely! The critics would do well to remember that they do the same sort of thing themselves.

  11. I should elucidate my point; the previous message is of great ambiguity.

    In definition, these examples,
    "All mothers are female."
    "One plus two equals three"
    are Tautology.

    And I reckon that these sentences at the very least serve the function of making clear definitions. I also believe on some occasions, they function as emphasis.

    Here I sidetrack a little, it seems to me that, usage of repetition comes with risks of suggesting Tautology, superfluity,etc.

  12. This is the logical notion of tautology, which is very different from the way the term tautology is used in stylistics

  13. Thanks. My mistake, I wasn't aware of the difference.

  14. I had just replied to a friend of mine who is quite picky about these things.

    "You guys also suck at dancing too" was my rebuttal.

    Wondering if I'd face his criticism for that, I had to Google for "also too" and came across this!

    I'm relieved now.

  15. Kewljim said, 'to his Canadian ear.'

    I am a Southerner living in Canada, and there are many things I hear here that sound queer. They never say, 'America,' when referring to the United States, unlike their British brethren, and they always say, "in United States" instead of, "in the United States." They say, "he's in hospital," not "in the hospital." Makes me feel like they have article confusion not unlike our Russian friends speaking English.
    They say, "KILometre," instead of, "kilOMeter." They say, "Fillim," instead of, "film." There's only one vowel in the word, fellas.
    Ah, the trials and tribulations of this Virginian up North of the Yankees!

  16. Well, as I see, the use of 'yet' might be restrictive of that of 'ever', implying 'ever up to this very moment', and a possible increase in the chances that he/she actually gets to try it in the future.