Not necessarily redundant

Heard visually see a couple of times in the past week and thought to look at the expression. Over a million raw ghits for {“you can visually see”}, so there’s a lot of visual seeing being done out there.

At first glance, it’s just redundant, pleonastic. But there’s more to it than that.

From the very early days of English, the verb see has had two prominent and importantly different uses, for visual perception (‘perceive with the eye’: “I see your hands”) and for mental perception (‘perceive with the mind’: “I see your point”). The first is the older use (but not by much, according to the OED), the second a metaphorical development from it. Both flourish today, so that there are often contexts where a scrupulous person might want to clarify which meaning is intended; visually see disambiguates things in favor of the first sense.

(Compare temperature hot vs. spicy hot, queer-peculiar vs. queer-gay, etc.)

Some examples:

Sometimes, you can visually see that a cut line is not straight. (link)

This is done so you can visually see that the parts actually fit on the sheet. (link)

Concerned about digging up the same street twice? With our software modules you can visually see in any given time frame what geospatial or time conflicts there might be, even if you have hundreds of forward works projects going on simultaneously from multiple departments and/or outside contractors. (link)

You can visually see what you have duplicates for and make crafting decisions on the fly (link)

In this plugin, you will see a very simple calendar. Right here, you can visually see which posts are scheduled when and so forth. (link)

In the first two examples, visually specifies that some fact can be not merely appreciated or understood, but appreciated or understood by looking, by visual inspection. In the remaining examples, information is being presented; this could have been done entirely in words (in some kind of table or file), but in all three cases, the information is in fact presented graphically, in a visualization — and that’s what visually tells us.

I wouldn’t be surprised if visually see had been extended from such cases, where visually helps in disambiguation, to other cases, where the ‘perceive by the eyes’ sense of see could be determined from context. Once the expression is around, people will be inclined to use it even when its reasons for being aren’t necessarily operative.

Meanwhile, visually see is available for scorn by the Omit Needless Words folks, by those who insist on brevity wherever possible. (Here’s another case of Brevity vs. Clarity: plain see is briefer, but visually see is clearer.) Somewhat surprisingly, visually see didn’t turn up in the handbooks surveyed by my summer interns a few years ago when they looked at Omit Needless Words prescriptions. But it hasn’t gone completely unnoticed.

Lots of people collect redundancies/pleonasms (of many different types: the type ATM machine and the type Mount Fujiyama are perennial favorites). On the net, we have, for instance, Maeve Maddox’s Daily Writing Tips site, with its posting “Let the Word Do the Work”:

When language-mutilator Yogi Berra said that something was “like ‘deja vu’ all over again,” everybody laughed. Lately I get the feeling that some people who say it don’t know it’s a joke.

Yogi’s “belts and suspenders” approach to words seems to be on the increase. We’ve all seen ads that offer “a free gift.” Sometimes it’s “an absolutely free gift.” It’s as if people don’t trust a word to mean what it means.

Some recent examples from the media include: “adequate enough,” “a navy sailor,” “an army soldier,” “coupled together with,” and “the maroon-colored Jaguar.”

… Besides sounding foolish, the practice of bolstering a word with a a word that replicates its meaning weakens the expressiveness of the language. [I’ve never understood how repetition for emphasis weakens the expressiveness of phrases — much less the expressiveness of the language — but people say this sort of thing again and again, maybe just because they heard other people say it and never thought to analyze what they were saying. In any case, the urge to peeve is powerful.]

Here are some redundant combinations I’ve heard or read lately in the media. The careful writer will avoid such nonsense.

return back, progress forward, forests of trees, other alternatives, continue on, evacuated out, regress back, penetrate through, speeding too fast, refinanced again, a human person, charred black, a baby nursery, reiterate again, fast forward ahead, socialize together, two twin towers

(Many of these are castigated in the handbooks. And there’s contrary literature defending some of them, in context.)

Maddox invites comments; people offer their favorite redundant combinations, like this one from J.B. on April 10, 2011:

“Visually see” bothers me, too. (Actually, I think it’s so silly it’s funny.)

Meanwhile, on the Repetitive Redundancies (a.k.a. tautologies) site, which begins with the tag

It all started when my mother taught me to say “tuna fish”

and continues with an enormous list, where we find the entry:

I need to visually see it with my eyes. –anonymous engineer

In partial defense of the engineer, let me suggest that he meant “with my own eyes” — but if you add that qualification, then visually is no longer necessary. On the other hand, this is probably a quotation from speech, in which case the speaker would have started out with the disambiguating visually see and then decided to emphasize that; material tends to pile up in speech that you’d probably edit out in writing.

My point in all of this is not to advocate the use of apparent redundancies, but just to observe (once again) that people can have good reasons for using such things.

One Response to “Not necessarily redundant”

  1. The Ridger Says:

    Wow. Peevers amuse me. “Baby nursery” is nonsense? Sure, context probably tells you which, but it’s not like “baby” and “nursery” are synonymous. Any driver will tell you that you can “speed” but not be going “too fast”. “Refinanced again”? Maybe it’s the second time they refinanced – I know a lot of people who’ve done that. And I would find “we continued the road” or “continued our way” to be much worse than “continued on” either of them…

    Lists of absolute prohibitions like that are just … risible.

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