A day in the life of a word-nerd family

Some families focus their dinnertime conversation on sports, others on celebrities, still others on the housework and homework to be done. In our family, we talk about words: what they mean, where they come from –  and most of all, how they’re misused. If other families were privy to our table talk, I imagine they would consider it either comical, pointless, or fascinating, in an anthropological-researchy kind of way.

The other day we were all hanging out in the living room, each doing our own thing. About halfway through a magazine article, I came upon the following sentence: “The roots of their relationship trace back to a Neil Young tribute event that took place during the 2010 Cultural Olympiad in Vancouver.” Something snagged me about the sentence, so I reread it. Aha, I thought, it’s the juxtaposition of “roots” and “trace back.” Is that a redundancy?

I read the sentence out loud to my family. The conversation that ensued went something like this:

Tara (daughter): Yes, it’s redundant, because “roots” is the “back.” It’s like saying the roots go to the roots.

Drew (husband): But roots have two dimensions. You can trace a root from its beginning to its end. So I vote not redundant.

Me: Here’s another way to look at it. You could remove either “roots” or “trace back” and the sentence would still make sense. For example, you could say “the relationship has its roots in a Neil Young tribute” or “the relationship can be traced back to a Neil Young tribute.” You don’t need both terms, which means the construction is redundant.

Drew: I guess that makes sense. OK, I change my vote.

Jackson (son): I agree you don’t need both terms, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s superfluous to use them together.

Me: Sure it does. It’s like saying increasingly more. Either word would suffice, so pairing them is wrong.

Jackson: It’s not quite the same thing. “Roots” and “trace back” aren’t synonyms.

Tara: Come to think of it, it’s not so much a redundancy as a mistake in usage. It should be “the roots lie in,” or something like that.

This is the short version. The actual conversation took about twenty minutes.

When I told my daughter I was thinking of blogging about the incident, she tried to dissuade me. “You won’t be able to pull it off without sounding like you’re boasting,” she said.

I’ll let you be the judge.

This entry was posted in Grammar, Language and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A day in the life of a word-nerd family

  1. tanlee3 says:

    As a writer I struggle with sentences like this every day. Aaaargh! Thanks for reminding me how important it is to get them right. There is nothing worse as a reader than being jolted out of the story by a poorly constructed sentence.

  2. I’m so jealous. To have even one additional Word Nerd in the house would be wonderful. Having three must be so much fun!

  3. Madame McGee says:

    Doesn’t sound boastful to me. The dialogue amuses and interests me in a watching-a-courtroom-drama kind of way where the prosecuting and defense lawyers are both really good at arguing their cases.

  4. Danica Lavoie says:

    Boasting? Not at all. I find it charming!

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