Back in June, I wrote, Less vs Fewer: Pedantry at the Grocery Store. It told the story of my running into a grammar pedant at the Whole Foods. He was very happy that the express checkout said “15 items or fewer” and not “15 items or less.” Being a grammar liberal, I was not impressed. In the article, I responded, “Worrying about less vs fewer is just foolish. Or fatuous. Or silly. Oh my God! What is the exact right word to describe this?! I’m sure there are people buying eggplants in Whole Foods right now who won’t have a clue what I’m talking about.”
Jurgan commented that he was more understanding of the issue. Then he mentioned one thing that really bothered him was things like “ATM machine.” The point being that ATM stands for “automated teller machine.” So when one says “ATM machine,” one is saying “automated teller machine machine.” These are the kinds of things that do drive people a bit crazy. As you will see, they do not generally drive me crazy.
The RAS Syndrome
A while after that, a writer I work with a lot, Claire Broadley, sent me a link to the Wikipedia page on RAS Syndrome. It came along with a note that said she thought I might enjoy it. Indeed! For you see, RAS is an acronym for “redundant acronym syndrome” So RAS Syndrome is redundant acronym syndrome syndrome. “ATM machine” is one of the big examples of this. The page also lists PIN (personal identification number) number. In fact, RAS Syndrome is often referred to as PNS Syndrome: PIN Number Syndrome Syndrome. And that is just delicious: personal identification number number syndrome syndrome. Admittedly, not as good as Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. But still: very good.
Wikipedia also goes to the trouble of explaining, “The term RAS Syndrome is intentionally redundant…” That makes me think of, “Take my wife, as in ‘consider my wife’… Please! In the different sense of ‘take’ you see. I was implying that you should consider my wife but I was really just saying that you should take her off my hands! This is because I don’t like my wife very much!” I don’t think many people were scratching their heads, “Don’t they realize they’ve done the same thing with RAS Syndrome that they’re complaining about?!”
Let’s All Be Understanding
I am inclined to be forgiving of the RAS Syndrome. And I’m hardly alone. Wikipedia quotes Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words as saying, “Not all repetition is bad. It can be used for effect… or for clarity, or in deference to idiom…. ‘SALT talks’ and ‘HIV virus’ are… technically redundant because the second word is already contained in the preceding abbreviation, but only the ultra-finicky would deplore them.”
This is an excellent point that many people miss: we aren’t only trying to do one thing with language. But I would go further. Precision is well down the list of what we want when writing. It is rarely the case that a piece of writing will be ruined because one used “silly” when “facetious” was more precise.
When Do Acronyms Stop Being Acronyms?
But when it comes to the RAS Syndrome, are we really so sure that it is redundant. Consider the ATM. I remember, being perhaps 8-years-old, when our town got its first automated teller machine. You could take out a maximum of $50 per day, and you could only take out cash in $25 increments: a twenty and a five. But even being there at the very start, I don’t think of ATM as an acronym. And I haven’t for decades. The same is true of PIN, which was an acronym almost the moment it was a phrase.
Now I understand how certain things will just send a chill down the spine. “AIDS syndrome” bothers me — largely because of the emotional power of “AIDS” and that it has never quite stopped being an acronym. But ATM and PIN? I don’t think they are acronyms anymore. So I can understand people bristling at “PIN number,” but I don’t think they have any cause to feel superior about it. And that is exactly what most people do do.
Apparently, the term RAS Syndrome was coined in a New Scientist feedback column. And whoever came up with it must be applauded. Because I think it helps everyone treat the issue with the gentle amusement that it deserves.
According to New Scientist, the “NT” in Windows NT did not stand for “New Technology,” but rather “Northern Telecom.” This is not actually true. Once Microsoft licensed “NT,” it explicitly used it to mean “New Technology.” I remember. I was there during the NT-OS/2 wars. So “NT technology,” which Microsoft used all the time, was, in fact, an example of the RAS Syndrome.