Complete and utter

Complete. Or utter.

I came across this in the first para­graph of an old post and cringed. First, «com­plete and utter» seems redun­dant. Per­haps it isn’t always; the two words have some­what dif­fer­ent def­i­n­i­tions if very sim­i­lar usage. It’s pos­si­ble that one would want to spec­i­fy both that some­thing is not only total­ly what­ev­er attribute is being ascribed, but that attribute in the most extreme manner.

I’m hav­ing trou­ble com­ing up with an exam­ple of that hypo­thet­i­cal, which leads me all the more to my orig­i­nal con­clu­sion: this phrase is almost cer­tain­ly redundant.

An argu­ment could be made that the redun­dan­cy lends the phrase a sense of hyper­bole. And if that is what is meant, fine. Fine with this reser­va­tion, which is per­haps the larg­er sin in using this phrase: it vio­lates Orwell’s advice from his essay Pol­i­tics and the Eng­lish Lan­guage (which ought to be read by any writer):

Nev­er use a metaphor, sim­i­le, or oth­er fig­ure of speech which you are used to see­ing in print.

Cor­rect or not, this phrase is hack­neyed and has been since before I learned to write. Or read. Or breathe.

Being a phrase that has been overused not only is a warn­ing by itself, but also relates to my ear­li­er allowance that it could be use­ful to lend empha­sis to one’s point. The com­mon-ness of the phrase removes the impact such redun­dan­cy might have giv­en it. Com­pare he’s a com­plete idiot or he’s an utter idiot with he’s a com­plete and utter idiot. Either of the first two exam­ples seem like more emphat­ic asser­tions of the per­son­’s idio­cy than the third.

There­fore, I declare this a com­plete and utter phrase to avoid.