Is there a word which describes the unnecessary use of adverbs in front of adjectives, usually added to provide emphasis, if the adjective is binary?

For example, take the sentence "He was extremely silent." Since the definition of silent is "not making or accompanied by any sound", he is either silent or not silent, but not partially silent.

I was thinking of "hyperbole", but that doesn't quite fit the meaning.

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    Hi Cascabel, apologies the post was written in haste, let me modify it now.
    – Luke
    Commented Jan 14, 2017 at 23:57
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    No need to apologize, my friend. You may want to take the tour, or perhaps review the Help Page: How to ask a question I approved an edit to your question (not my edit): if you are not happy with it you may "roll back ". Commented Jan 15, 2017 at 0:06
  • Maybe a better example would be "very unique" -- this phrase is a common pet peeve of pedantics.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 18:40

4 Answers 4


EDIT: As mentioned in comments, extremely silent is not a unambiguous example of a tautology as it depends on a very particular (and arguably incorrect) interpretation of silent. This answer assumes that silent is binary as described in the OP's question.

He was extremely silent is a tautological sentence.

From Literary Devices website:

A tautology states the same thing twice in slightly different wording, or adds redundant and unnecessary words. Tautological reasoning is logic that uses the premise as the conclusions, or is too obvious as to be necessary. For example, saying, “When we get a pet we will either get a dog or some other animal” is tautological, as every pet is necessarily either a dog or not a dog.

Other examples of tautologies based on redundancy are “new innovation,” “male widower,” and “added bonus.”

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    k1eran, that is exactly the word. Thank you! I would up-vote your answer, but unfortunately I am lacking the reputation points...
    – Luke
    Commented Jan 15, 2017 at 0:24
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    @k1eran "Extremely" does mean the same thing as "silent", so it is not stating the same thing twice. Nor is it merely redundant or unnecessary, although I would dispute that that would be covered by the definition of tautology. I think that the term that best describes this usage is "incorrect". It is definitely not tautological. Commented Jan 15, 2017 at 4:20
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    It's not quite a tautology. en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/silent gives the meanings " (of a person) not speaking" and " (of a person) not prone to speak much; taciturn" neither of which mean not making any sound at all.
    – alephzero
    Commented Jan 15, 2017 at 5:54
  • @Luke - In case you haven't seen them: please re-read the definition, and see the other comments on this answer. The meaning of "tautological" is similar to what you want, but doesn't work for your provided example. It would work for "absolutely silent", as "silence" is already absolute.
    – AndyT
    Commented Jan 15, 2017 at 10:50
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    @ChrisBarry I think you're missing a "not" in the first clause of your comment
    – verbose
    Commented Jan 15, 2017 at 18:29

Wikipedia explains that pleonasm is the use of more words or parts of words than are necessary or sufficient for clear expression: examples are "black darkness", "burning fire".

I believe this applies very well here, with the caveat that I think you might be misinterpreting silent and using a definition that is not the one intended by the speaker: the word silent, when used to qualify people, doesn't have to literally refer to someone who never says a single word throughout the course of their life (that would be "mute", if anything!), but merely that they are taciturn or not loquacious – which is not a binary description.

"He is silent" could be employing either meaning, depending on whether the context involves him being silent now, or him being a generally silent person; when I see the statement "He is extremely silent", though, I automatically assume it's a description of the person's general quality of being very taciturn, and as such, not really a pleonasm at all.

Something that was pointed out in comments is that "pleonasm" is often employed more narrowly to refer to the use of multiple words that have related meanings, and even Wikipedia calls pleonasm a type of tautology, and provides examples of that type; however, the basic working definition it presents is "the use of more words or parts of words than are necessary or sufficient for clear expression". If we stopped at that, "extremely silent" would qualify (minus the above caveat).

Since just picking and choosing parts of a Wikipedia definition isn't satisfactory, I will also look elsewhere. Merriam-Webster defines it as

the use of more words than those necessary to denote mere sense (as in the man he said)

and ODE as

the use of more words than are necessary to convey meaning (e.g. see with one's eyes), either as a fault of style or for emphasis.

Admittedly, both examples involve repetition of related meanings ("he" and "the man"; "see" and "eyes"), but the definitions themselves don't. I think the examples can be explained away as the most obvious type of pleonasm that comes to mind.

I find it interesting that one of the dictionaries provided by Dictionary.com (the "British Dictionary") actually gives two separate definitions, the first being similar to the ones we've seen, but the second being a terser

a word or phrase that is superfluous

Under this definition, anything that can be omitted from communication due to being already covered elsewhere can be termed a pleonasm.

The etymological argument, for what it's worth, can also be brought forward, as Etymonline explains that pleonasm comes from πλεονάζειν, which simply means "to be more than enough" or "to be superfluous", which in turn simply comes from the root for "more" (the same root that generated Latin and English plus, I believe).

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    Pleonasm... that's a very impossible word to remember!
    – Bizhan
    Commented Jan 15, 2017 at 9:31
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    This suffers from the same problem as tautological for the OP's example. To paraphrase Chris Barry's comment on k1eran's answer: "Extremely" does mean the same thing as "silent", so there is no redundancy. I think that the term that best describes this usage is "incorrect". It is definitely not a pleonasm.
    – AndyT
    Commented Jan 15, 2017 at 10:42
  • I think "pleonasm" applies here even if it is most commonly used for the tautological word pairs you describe. My argument on that is too long for a comment, so I have added it to the answer.
    – LjL
    Commented Jan 15, 2017 at 16:27

Extra words that do not provide any additional meaning are redundant. This doesn't specifically apply only to the case of adverbs in front of binary adjectives, but it is an applicable term.

If one accepts that silent is really binary, then saying "utterly silent" is redundant, because silent inherently means the complete absence of sound, and it's impossible to be more silent than that.

In reality, silent is not truly binary, because in everyday usage, it really means mostly quiet. Humans almost never encounter a condition of true silence, and usually use it to mean a general lack of sound or speech. If I say "Charles remained silent throughout the meeting" that doesn't mean there was no sound whatsoever coming from Charles, just that he did not say anything. His heart was still beating, he was still breathing, and any minor movements he may have made probably produced sounds as well.

To make a distinction between this meaning of silence and the meaning of complete lack of sound, which is extremely rare, an adverb can be added. "When the power went out, the room became utterly silent."


Extremely silent means 0 decibels

Extremely Silent 0 decibels and can't be heard

Near Extremely Silent Not inaudible or halfway between

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    What is this based on? Can you quote a source?
    – Joachim
    Commented May 24, 2021 at 13:46

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