Tautology is a special or unintentional use of the same root words in a phrase or sentence or an unreasonable repetition of the same word in a statement.
Tautology, in its most basic definition, is a useless repetition. It’s when a phrase or statement says the same thing twice using different words.
It can be done intentionally for emphasis but is often used unintentionally due to poor writing or speaking.
Tautology examples are:
- “It was a free gift that cost nothing at all,” and
- “The weather was hot, and it was scorching.”
Both tautologies because the words used to describe the two concepts have very similar meanings.
So, tautology is a form of redundancy that weakens a sentence but can also be used for emphasis to make sure the fact is not lost on the reader or listener.
Tautology is a rhetorical figure, which is an unreasonable repetition of the same (or cognate) or similar words.
The term is formed by a combination of the ancient Greek words “the same” and “word” (Knight & Smith, 2022).
According to Adams (2017), tautology is:
“…the saying of the same thing twice over in different words, generally considered to be a fault of style” (p. 57).
Benedictow (2022) states that tautology, as defined in the Cambridge Dictionary, is the:
“…use of two words or phrases that express the same meaning is unnecessary and often unintentional” (p. 491).
Tautology can be used either purposefully or unintentionally. Unintentional tautology is generally considered to be a bad writing style and is best avoided, while intentional tautology can be used to emphasize a point or add emphasis.
For example, “I ran faster and faster” is an unintentional tautology, whereas “It was so hot it was scorching” is an intentional tautology used for emphasis.
In simple terms, tautology is an unnecessary repetition of words or phrases that express the same idea differently and is generally considered a fault of style.
- “He was a man of few words, and he spoke succinctly.” In this case, the words “few” and “succinctly” are redundant as they both mean the same thing. For greater clarity, one of them should be eliminated.
- “She was so excited she could hardly contain her elation.” Using either “excited” or “elation” will create more impact than using both words interchangeably, as they mean close to the same thing.
- “It was a free gift that cost nothing at all.” The phrases “free” and “nothing at all” express the same sentiment, so either one should be removed for a more succinct statement. However, suppose a writer wants to clearly communicate that the gift was complimentary with no cost attached. In that case, it is better to use both words in unison.
- “The weather was hot, and it was scorching.” In this case, both “hot” and “scorching” have the same meaning. So, this sentence can be changed to something like, “The weather was scorching.”
- “She always arrived on time and punctual.” Here, both words “on time” and “punctual” mean the same. If a writer wants to be more precise, they should use “punctual” instead of “on time.”
- “The meal was so delicious it was mouth-watering.” This sentence contains two words that mean the same thing – “delicious” and “mouth-watering.” To make the sentence more concise, “delicious” should be used instead of “mouth-watering.” This word also has a more positive connotation.
- “She had a small, miniature car.” This instance makes clear that both “small” and “miniature” signify the same idea, thus rendering them unnecessary. To get better results in terms of concision, only a single term should be employed. Nevertheless, if the author aims to emphasize the size of the car more thoroughly, they are free to use both descriptors.
- “He had a round, circular face.” This sentence contains two words that mean the same thing – “round” and “circular.” Just one of them should be used for greater precision, depending on the context.
- “The apartment was so large it was huge.” In this case, the words “large” and “huge” mean the same thing, so one of them should be removed. However, if a reader wants to emphasize how big the apartment was, both words should be used.
- “She was so exhausted she couldn’t move a muscle.” This example shows that “exhausted” and “couldn’t move a muscle” mean the same thing, so one of them should be removed. In such a case, the writer should use “exhausted” to make the sentence more concise.
Tautology vs. Pleonasm
|Unnecessary repetition of words or phrases
|Use of more words than necessary to express an idea
|Incorrect use of single-root words that repeat meaning
|Use of semantically close words creating unjustified redundancy
While tautology is the unnecessary repetition of words or phrases that express the same idea, pleonasm is when a writer uses more words than necessary to express an idea. The concepts overlap. One poor sentence may be an example of both tautology and pleonasm.
- Tautology is the incorrect use of single-root words in the speech that repeat an already expressed meaning. In other words, it is a certain refinement of words that is unnecessary (Lehmann, 2005). For example, “There were many people present at the event” is a tautology since both words mean the same thing. So here, only one word (“people”) can be used.
- Pleonasm is a concept translated as “excess.” It is a speech turnover, which is based on the use of semantically close words in a phrase, creating an unjustified effect of logical redundancy. In linguistics, pleonasm is often referred to as verbosity that spoils style (“the vice of style”) (Lehmann, 2005). For instance, “She was so excited she could hardly contain her enthusiasm” is a pleonasm because it uses two words to describe the same emotion. In this case, only one word (“excited”) should be used to emphasize her enthusiasm level.
So, the main difference between tautology and pleonasm is that tautology is the incorrect use of single-root words to repeat an already expressed meaning. In contrast, pleonasm is the use of redundant words to express an idea.
Tautology needs to be avoided in writing, while pleonasm can be used strategically to provide emphasis (Lehmann, 2005).
Overall, it is important to distinguish the two words and use only one if they mean the same thing to prevent tautology or pleonasm. In addition, it will help improve sentence structure and make writing more concise and clear.
Tautology in Literature
Tautology is found everywhere in literature, from simple phrases to famous quotes. Moreover, the deliberately used tautology no longer acts as a marker of ignorance but as a stylistic device, a figure of speech.
For example, William Shakespeare wrote:
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life (Booth, 2015, p. 177)
Here, the words “to sleep” and “perchance to dream” mean the same thing, but Shakespeare chose to use both for poetic effect. So, tautology can be used in literature as a stylistic device to emphasize important concepts. Another example of tautology in literature is presented in The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe:
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;—
Darkness there and nothing more (Beezley, 1891, p. 101).
The phrases “you came rapping” and “you came tapping” are tautologies that emphasize the gentle rapping on the door.
So, tautology can be used in literature as a stylistic device to create an effect of emphasis and make the text more poetic. Using tautology can also help strengthen the author’s point and make it easier for readers to remember the message.
Tautology Pros and Cons
As with any other concept, tautology has advantages and disadvantages that should be considered.
|Pros of Tautology
|Cons of Tautology
|– Emphasizes a point, making it easier to remember
|– Leads to repetition and verbosity, making text lengthy
|– Adds a poetic effect to the text
|– Spoils the writing style
|– Helps strengthen the author’s point
|– Can make the text unclear and confusing
|– Can be used as a figure of speech in literature
|– Should be avoided in writing to prevent confusion and errors
|– Can help avoid repeating ideas
|– Used carefully, it can make text more emphatic and poetic
Pros of Tautology
- It can help to emphasize a point and make it easier for readers to remember the message: So, by repeating the same idea in different words, writers can help readers to understand their point better and remember it.
- It can add a poetic effect to the text: Tautology can be used as a literary device to add an effect of emphasis.
- It can help strengthen the author’s point: As previously mentioned, tautology can be used as a figure of speech in literature to strengthen the author’s point.
Cons of Tautology
- It can lead to repetition and verbosity: As tautology uses redundant words to express the same idea, it can lead to unnecessary repetition in writing, making the text lengthy and difficult to read.
- It can spoil the style: Tautology is often referred to as verbosity that spoils style, so it should be avoided in writing.
- It can make the text unclear: Tautology can lead to confusion and make the text hard to understand, as it might obscure the sentence’s meaning.
- It can establish circular logic: This occurs when the repetition reinforces its own logic, not relying on any additional data or support.
Overall, tautology must be applied carefully and strategically to create an effect of emphasis and make the text more poetic. It should be used to avoid repeating an idea, as it can lead to confusion.
Tautology is the use of redundant words to express an idea. This concept is often mistaken for pleonasm, which means using several words to express one idea.
Tautology is found everywhere in literature, from simple phrases to famous quotes. It can be used as a stylistic device to emphasize a point or make the text more poetic.
There are both advantages and disadvantages of tautology that should be considered when deciding to use it in writing.
So, tautology should be used carefully and strategically, and not to repeat an idea, as it can lead to confusion and spoil the writing style.
Adams, G. (2017). Notes from the upside down: An unofficial guide to stranger things. Touchstone.
Beezley, C. F. (1891). Living thoughts in words that burn, from poet, sage and humorist. Elliot & Beezley.
Benedictow, O. J. (2022). The complete history of plague in Norway, 1348-1654. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Booth, S. (2015). Close reading without readings. Rowman & Littlefield.
Knight, S., & Smith, K. (2022). A tautology or two while we translate Chinese classics. Chinese Literature and Thought Today, 53(1-2), 117–129. https://doi.org/10.1080/27683524.2022.2081050
Lehmann, C. (2005). Pleonasm and hypercharacterisation. Yearbook of Morphology, 119–154. https://doi.org/10.1007/1-4020-4066-0_5