A tautology is an expression or phrase that says the same thing twice, just in a different way. For this reason, a tautology is usually undesirable, as it can make you sound wordier than you need to be, and make you appear foolish. Occasionally, a tautology can help to add emphasis or clarity, or introduce intentional ambiguity, but in most cases it's best to choose just one way to state your meaning and eliminate the extra verbiage.
Examples of Tautology
Sometimes a tautology involves just a few words that mean the same thing. Consider the following sentence:
- I went to see him personally.
This is an example of tautology, because the adverb "personally" repeats the idea already expressed in the single word "I". In everyday conversation, the addition of "personally" is used for emphasis to point out that the subject of the sentence is invested in the action, has overseen something, etc. Technically, the word "personally" doesn't add any new information and could be cut from the sentence without changing its meaning.
In the realm of logic, a tautology is something that is true in all circumstances. A common example of a logical tautology is the following:
- The dog is either brown, or the dog is not brown.
This sentence is always true because one or the other must be so. This is different than a statement that says, "The dog is either brown, or the dog is white," because dogs can be black, gray, or a mix of colors. Note that when you put both halves of the logical tautology together, it feels a bit redundant, just like a verbal tautology.
Tautology in Everyday Language
A tautology often involves just a few words in a sentence that have the same meaning, or in which one word is part of the definition of the other word. Though tautologies are common in everyday speech and don't diminish clarity, they should be avoided in formal writing so you don't repeat yourself unnecessarily.
The highlighted words in these examples are tautological; that is, they have similar meanings. This is no need to use both:
- Remember when 4G cell phones were a new innovation?
- The evening sunset was beautiful.
- I need a new hot water heater.
- Charlie proudly told his mom he made the hand-made scarf himself.
- The careful, there is a lot of frozen ice on the road!
- I know it's true because I heard it with my own ears.
- She always over-exaggerates.
- In Rome, we saw dilapidated ruins.
- Let's order a hoagie sandwich.
- Alice started her presentation with a short summary.
- He is always making predictions about the future.
- The school was in close proximity to the explosion.
- The Gobi is a very dry desert.
- In my opinion, I think he is wrong.
- The storm hit at 2 p.m. in the afternoon.
- The students will take turns, one after the other.
- Having a drug test is a necessary requirement for the job.
- They hiked to the summit at the top of the mountain.
- I'm sorry to hear about your sad misfortune.
- She was a dark-haired brunette.
- The hotel room wasn't great, but it was adequate enough.
- I loved reading Sam's autobiography of his own life.
Tautologies From Famous Speakers
Even the best speakers and writers will sometimes let tautology slip into their work. Politicians are particularly prone to this verbal tic as they speak for hours on end and often give slightly different versions of prepared remarks during many campaign stops.
- "It's no exaggeration to say the undecideds could go one way or another." - George H. W. Bush
- "Our nation must come together to unite." - George W. Bush
- "It's deja vu all over again." - Yogi Berra
- "They are simply going to have to score more points than the other team to win the game" - John Madden
- "If we do not succeed, we run the risk of failure." - Dan Quayle
- "Smoking can kill you, and if you've been killed, you've lost a very important part of your life." - Brooke Shields.
- "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right." - Abraham Lincoln
Tautology in Literature
Occasionally tautologies are more than just needless repetition; they can add beauty or cause the reader to think about a subject more deeply. Examples of tautologies in literature show them at their best, whether for dramatic or comedic effect:
- "To be or not to be, that is the question." - William Shakespeare, Hamlet
- "But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping, And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door" - Edgar Allan Poe, "The Raven"
- "If I perish, I perish." - Esther 4:15
- "And as for me, if I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved." - Genesis 43:14
- "I'm willing to tell you. I'm wanting to tell you. I'm waiting to tell you." - George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion
Tautology in Song
Song lyrics are often a treasure trove of tautologies, as in this case repetition can be artistic. Additional words can help fill out the rhythm or make a rhyme in song, so this repetition is often in service of the artistic work as a whole rather than accidental:
- "I want to live while I am alive" - Bon Jovi
- "There's nothing you can do that can't be done. There's nothing you can sing that can't be sung" - The Beatles
- "Qué será, será. Whatever will be, will be" - Jay Livingston and Ray Evans
- "Only the lucky ones ... get lucky" - Loverboy
- "Shout it, shout it, shout it out loud!" - Kiss
Tautology in Acronyms
Sometimes there is tautology with the use of abbreviations and acronyms, when part of the acronym that stands for a word is then repeated in conversation. For example, saying "the ATM machine" is a tautology, because the M already stands for machine. Other examples include:
- DVD disc
- GPS system
- HIV virus
- ISBN number
- PIN number
- Please R.S.V.P.
- RAS syndrome
- SARS syndrome
- UPC code
- VIN number
Tautology in Advertising
Repetition is often a key feature in advertising. Marketers want to make their messages stick in people's minds to encourage them to buy. For this reason, tautology is common in store signs and advertising slogans:
- Enjoy your added bonus!
- McDonald's new Zesty Mango McMini is really zesty.
- Please prepay in advance.
- The store is giving away free tickets!
- The World's Greatest Spokesman in the World!
In a logical tautology, the statement is always true because one half of the "or" construction must be so:
- Either it will rain tomorrow, or it won't rain.
- Bill will win the election, or he will not win the election.
- She is brave, or she is not brave.
- I will get in trouble or not get in trouble.
- Mary will pitch a no-hitter, or she won't pitch a no-hitter.
Less is More
As you can see, there are times when the use of tautology is helpful to emphasize a point or to add poetic flair to speech or writing. In most cases, though a tautology doesn't add new information to a statement and should be edited out of your writing. This will show readers that you are in complete command of your vocabulary and don't need to use extra words to make your point. In writing, as in life, sometimes less is more.