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Often Vs Oftentimes —A Verbal Scourge of Tautology

When I moved to America I had to make linguistic compromises. I can come to terms with fertilizer as an alternative spelling and Noah Webster’s invention of color; although I cannot adjust to the ubiquity of thru. Thru is seen in ‘drive-thru’ and in emails as ‘we’re closed from the 9th thru to the 21st’. This barely saves time, making its usage far from justifiable by a temporal metric.

I could understand that thru’s popularity might stem from a desire for consistency. An unvarying pronunciation of ‘ough’ as in thorough (tho-row to British ears) makes sense, yet not as it occurs in through—this latter word now sounds like throw.

I used to mentally caricature emails signed off with ‘Best’: best friend, best email ever. Best what? But the British equivalent of ‘all the best’ is equally as ridiculous, including its full clunky meaning of all the best wishes.

Some other differences in British/American English are understandable however if we cast off our puritanical mantles and consider the logic which appealed to Christopher Hitchens, but there still exists an irksome phrase which lingers without need.

I have seen both in writing and the spoken word ‘oftentimes’. Grammatically inoffensive, oftentimes is more of a redundant phrase than a mistake. The word attempts to parallel sometimes but is mistaken.

A person’s usage of this repetition muddles  ‘some’ and ‘sometimes’ as if they are the same word, which of course they’re not.

Some is an indeterminate quantity, being uncountable yet it connotes more than a few and less than many.

Sometimes is thus a quantity which refers to amounts to time. Often already means ‘frequently in time’ and so the ‘time’ is redundant. One would therefore denote this as a tautology; or to be explicit a phrase which repeats the same thing twice (as opposed to repeating something many times. I am forgiven here).

‘He was a thief and a robber’ might be guilty of being a tautology. This depends on the reader’s associations with these words. A thief might indicate an opportunist such as a person who picks up an unattended item; a robber however might tend towards a description of someone who breaks into property to steal. The phrase ‘he was a thief and robber’ might then be discriminative albeit not very discerning.

Oftentimes does not fall into this genre of potential tautologies. Oftentimes is a definite tautology; the author’s  limited awareness of semantics and the wherefore in which words are deployed deserves to be called out. Oftentimes is a light echo, unlike ‘John was boring, dull, without provocation to excitement . . .’ however it nevertheless shows a limited awareness of what the words mean. It is used only because the author knows that words exist. We reproach semantic reoccurrences as poor style accordingly. One should consider the placement of words.

I note that at least one online dictionary stipulates that oftentimes comes from Middle English (via oft-times) but this etymology is still tautologous and derives from a time when few people were formally educated and the development of English language was in a highly dynamic phase. Authors bowed to the standardisation of spelling only much later.

I have also considered that oftentimes sounds like an affectation; a matter-of-fact snippet of archaic verbiage designed to sound informed, much like the ironic usage, although deliberate, of ‘in the olden days . . .’ to begin a children’s story which didn’t happen so long ago at all.

To return to the idea of the appropriate placement of words, Virginia Woolf in her spoken essay Word’s Fail Me gives prominence to the association which words imbue. She tells us that words cannot be used without bringing to the forefront of our minds other words, other memories.

Woolf gives us the verb ‘incarnadine’; she offers it to us because she suggests it cannot be used without thinking about the ocean in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, as the phrase multitudinous seas incarnadine. Mysterious facets of the English language exist in the form of powerful connotations and collocations—Woolf is correct that we cannot arbitrarily reinvent words to fit new meanings as a consequence of their previous marriages. We understand these matrimonial links not through textbooks but through experience with language and speech in the real world. We can choose to ignore these close ties between words, but this is inexcusable.

 

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