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A Pedant's Guide to the English Language - Part Eight: Tautology

In earlier essays, I have reflected on related topics such as logic, clarity, and style. In tautology, we have another subject to throw into this mix. Tautology is an “unnecessary repetition, usually in close proximity, of the same word, phrase, idea, argument”. [1] In this respect, tautology is an instance of flawed logic, an active hindrance to written clarity, and does not bear the hallmarks of good style.


Tautologies often occur quite naturally in our speech and writing. For instance, the phrase “old adage” is, strictly speaking, a tautology, for, in order to be deemed an “adage” in the first place, a certain historicity is required. Notwithstanding this, I’ve yet to encounter an adage of whose age I haven’t been reminded.[2]


Whilst I don’t find this particular tautology egregious, it does highlight that tautologies can arise out of a tendency to add emphasis, if not a willingness to exaggerate; equally, it reflects how tautologies become camouflaged under a tarpaulin of habit. Indeed, despite my best efforts, the perspicacious amongst you might not have enough fingers with which to count my running tautological-total.[3]


I have previously alluded to the helpfulness of reviewing your own writing with an attitude of critical inquisition. This is of particular pertinence in the case of tautology. Nonetheless, I must offer a word of caution; there is a difference between getting to the root of your writing and uprooting it entirely. Describing an adage as old, even for the staunchest of pedants, is at worst logical hiccup, if not a rhetorical flourish.


And yet, some tautologies are conspicuously clumsy, if not obstructive so we should strive to avoid them. Of this kind, I have collected some examples and listed them below:


Additionally, there was also another…

One after another, the succession of animals…

Deadly massacre/ hostile attacks

Separatist group striving to regain autonomy

Commonly, transitions, such as additionally or moreover, are paired with also. I have already suggested that such terminology, though not grammatically necessary, is helpful in installing fluidity in your writing. And yet, an eagerness to have these transitions often leads to such tautologies. This willingness to have them engenders a semantic amnesia, the writer forgetting that “additionally” negates the need for “also”.


Noun phrases can also become a magnet for tautology; it’s easy to imagine how the thought of “hostiles” carrying out attacks results in the expression “hostile attack”. Whilst the contrary notion of an amiable assailant is undoubtedly thought-provoking, such lapses are best avoided if your aim is anything but providing a chuckle for a keen reader.


*If you struggle with this topic and others like it, get in touch with Short Proofing: we are here to help!


References


[1] See “tautology” n., sense 1, OED Online (OED Third Edition June 2014, accessed 27/07/2020).


[2] I’ve hitherto spoken exclusively of tautology, though cases such as these, where more words than necessary are used, are also known as pleonastic. Wikipedia has a good page on pleonasms, highlighting that they often become established in language, despite their illogicality; even on the Short Proofing website, we have our “terms and conditions”. A famous example from Shakespeare is also quoted; in Julius Caesar, 3.2, Mark Antony refers to the wound inflicted by Brutus, Caesar’s closest ally turned murderer, as “the most unkindest cut of all”. Find the Wikipedia article here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pleonasm#Idiomatic_expressions, accessed 11/08/2020.


[3] Good job nobody’s reading this.



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