Question. What is an attested technical term for the following kind of pleonasm? Has this been described scientifically and where? What are other examples than the one I give below?

Let N be a noun. Let n be a noun modifier. Let a be an adjective. Assume the following

  • The compound 'n N' lexically exists.
  • There is nothing pleonastic about 'n N' in that not every 'N' is an 'n N', in any reasonable sense.
  • The compound 'a n N' however, is pleonastic, in that every 'n N' is 'a'.
  • The compound 'a n N' is however, not quite so pleonastic that every 'N' were 'a', too: there do exist 'N' which are non-'a'.

End of Question.

Example. a := bicyclic, n := mountain, N := bike. This results in

  • bicyclic mountain bike

Here, all the above are satisfied:

  • 'mountain bike' lexically exists.
  • The compound 'mountain bike' is not pleonastic at all; by far not every bike is a mountain bike, in any reasonable sense.
  • The compount 'bicyclic mountain bike' is pleonastic, in a reasonably clear sense: no usual mountain bike has a number of wheels other than 2.
  • There exist bikes which are non-bicyclic, in that there exist unicycles. So this is an example of the kind of pleonasm in the question: it is only pleonastic to add the 'a' to the 'n N'. It is not pleonastic to add 'a' to 'N' alone. (Note that 'bicyclic bike', while unusual, is not pleonastic, and appropriate in certain contexts, in view of unicycles or training wheels.)

    (This is not my main motivation for this question, yet the compound I am really interested in I prefer not to give, for several reasons, already because it is so specifici to a scientific subfield that it would be incomprehensible to most.)

  • 1
    Note that not every modifier to a noun that already has that property is necessarily pleonastic. Depending on the situation, you may wish to use it to highlight that particular property.
    – Eleshar
    Commented Dec 2, 2018 at 21:29
  • In another thread concerning adjective-order, I suggested an example, part of which was "black silk top hat". Someone countered that, although not all top hats are black, all silk top hats are black. This would imply that "black" is pleonastic here.
    – Rosie F
    Commented Jan 1, 2019 at 8:31
  • The terminology you have chosen (in place of your real terminology) is problematic here. We have to make some assumptions, in particular that: "bicyclic" can only "two-wheeled" and not "bike-like"; that "bike" includes unicycles (this is debatable), and that mountain unicycles don't exist (they do). I'd rather not have to analyze the semantics of bikes when they aren't, as you admit, even germane to your question. Can you come up with an example that is closer to your real domain? Commented May 2, 2019 at 17:00

1 Answer 1


It's a plain old pleonasm. For example German "weißer Schimmel" is the prime example of pleonasm to the point that it is the vulgar name for the concept. In english it's a white white horse but Schimmel, to my surprise may also be a grey horse, so white grey horse is just a different shade of grey while white is an ideal that doesn't exist. Your view on the issue may be obscured because you see mountain-bike as two words. As a German writing compoundnouns fused together, I see it differently and I might suggest that bike is a compound of two onesylablewords, all the same.

In linguistics, absent technical terms, the prime example is often taken as a namesake for the phenomenon. I lack a better example, but this kind of pleonasm would then be guest's bicycle mountain bike.

Edit after your update: (n N) = NP, N = NP; Hence (a NP) = (a N). If you parse (bicyclic mountain) as constituent, you'd have to wonder what that would be, and the phrase would be nearly ungrammatical, if (mountain bike) wouldn't be a lexical item. Constructions where the adjective can apply to both (n) and (N) are prefarable, "brown chocolate bar". A chocolate bar of brown chocalate covered in white sugar coating would not fulfil that requirement. It is and isn't a brown chocolate bar. A rectangular chocolate bar does fulfill the requirement. It is pleonastic for (N), but not for (n). Hence a favourable reading may be applied that doesn't presume the speaker were an idiot. Conversely, a round chocolate bar would be a contradiction for (a N), a round bar, but makes sense for (a n), round chocolate; For (n N), it depends, and so the meaning of "bar" could change over time. This works because chocolate is polysemous (substance, piece, the experience "I had chocolate", I like [to eat] chocolate", a certain product).

  • Google Search spreads pleonasms such as "off-road mountain bike".
    – amI
    Commented Oct 2, 2018 at 5:39

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