Tautology at work: don’t repeat yourself

Posted on 17 April 2014 by Lucy Gregory

Tautology is one of my favourite language concepts – for lots of reasons.

For a start, it’s an impressive sounding word. Throw it into a sentence and you immediately feel smarter. Of course, this only works if you use it properly. Which leads to another reason why I love tautology: it’s a very simple concept.

So what is it?

Tautology is when you use different words (unnecessarily) to express the same meaning. Some writers do it deliberately to great effect. But those who use it unwittingly come across as daft. So you need to avoid it at all costs.

Let’s have a look at some examples.

The daily papers and the BBC do it all the time (by mistake):

‘Mother of three triplets was interviewed’ (Of course she had three triplets!)

‘Patient dies after receiving a fatal overdose’ (He wouldn’t have died had the overdose not been fatal.)

‘The military faces tough challenges’ (By definition, all challenges are tough.)

‘Neighbourhoods are alert and vigilant after a spate of youth attacks’

In business, you’re more likely to come across phrases like the ones below:

Free gift
Close proximity
Difficult dilemma
Future prospects
Major breakthrough
Joint agreement
Foreign imports
Advance notice
Definite decision
Added bonus
I’ll deal with this personally.
Reiterate again
Revert back
Postpone until later
Unexpected surprise
Prepay in advance
New innovation
In my opinion, I think that…
2.00 pm in the afternoon
Forward planning
Short, five-minute presentation (This one really grates on me.)

We’re so used to seeing tautology in writing that often we don’t notice it. But it’s a waste of words – and you don’t want to be the dodo with egg on your face.

Interesting facts about tautology

1. Origins of the word
The origin of the word is Greek and comes from ‘tauto’ meaning ‘same’ and ‘logos’ meaning ‘word’.
2. Tautology as philosophy
As well as describing repetition, tautology is a philosophical concept. It refers to something that is true by virtue of logic but nothing else. A famous example is: ‘Either it is raining or it is not raining’. You can’t argue with the statement, but it doesn’t say anything useful.
3. Song writers love tautology

‘I want to live while I am alive’ – Bon Jovi

‘If you always get up late, you’ll never be on time’ – Broken Social Scene

‘There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done. There’s nothing you can sing that can’t be sung’ – The Beatles’

‘Que sera, sera. Whatever will be, will be’ – Jay Livingston and Ray Evans

‘I wanna know what I wanna know!’ – Rocket From the Crypt

‘Everything is everything’ – Phoenix

‘Shout it out loud!’ – Kiss