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May 25, 2023

What is tautology?

You should avoid tautology in formal writing 99.9% of the time, but you can use tautology in creative writing when the time’s right. Learn what tautology means, peruse some examples, pick up tricks to avoid this bad habit, and see the few exceptions when you can use tautology.

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Tautology definition

Tautology is the needless repetition of an idea, statement, or word. In most cases, tautology weakens writing because when you communicate the same thing twice without adding new information, you dilute your message’s impact. Conciseness is powerful.

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You commonly find tautology in amateur writing when the author adds fluff content to hit a specific word count. Tautology tempts even the most experienced of writers because as they write, they consider different ways to phrase their message. But rather than choosing just one phrase, the author faces choice paralysis and includes both.

Tautology examples

Once you glance at these examples, tautology will look very familiar to you.

At the risk of sounding redundant and repetitive, I’ll just cut to the chase.

  • The words redundant and repetitive mean the same thing. If you remove one of them, the sentence will sound stronger.

You’ll either pass or fail if you take that class.

  • The words pass and fail cancel each other out, rendering this sentence meaningless. Should you take a stance either way, the sentence will provide more substance for your readers.

My mom assisted me by helping me with my homework.

  • The words assisted and helping convey the same meaning. Including both weakens the sentence. Choose one to make the sentence more concise.

The mountaineers climbed to the summit at the top of the mountain.

  • A summit means the same thing as top of the mountain, thus making this sentence redundant. Strengthen the sentence by choosing just one. In this case, you can turn summit into a verb and write “The mountaineers summited the mountain.” and really tighten up the sentence.

Unmarried bachelors tend to spend more on high-end electronics.

  • A bachelor means unmarried man, so describing the person as an unmarried bachelor is redundant. If you remove the word unmarried, the meaning of the sentence remains the same.

She was the reason why I pursued a freelancing career.

  • This one is a little less obvious—why means for what reason. If you remove the word why the sentence remains the same, and if you remove the reason the sentence remains the same, too.

The sum total cost was more than we expected.

  • Sum and total are interchangeable, and you only need one of the two words to get your point across. Choose just one to strengthen the sentence.

Acceptable repetition in writing

English speakers use tautology all the time in conversation, so while it’s marked as a mistake in formal writing, it’s hailed as a technique in creative writing such as songs, poems, screenplays, fiction work, and more.

  • Example of tautology as a colloquialism: “You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.”
  • Example of tautology as a logical statement: “To be or not to be?”

Tautology is unwanted repetition, but not all repetition is unwanted. Meaningful repetitive techniques like anaphora and epistrophe emphasize your point and are particularly effective in speech writing.

  • Example of an anaphora: “We cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground” – Abraham Lincoln
  • Example of an epistrophe: “The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divides us has come.” – Nelson Mandela
“If you remove a word and the sentence remains the same, you discovered a redundancy.”

How to avoid unwanted tautology in your writing

Grammar checkers and Microsoft Word will catch some tautologies, but not all. You need to check your work line by line as well.

When spot-checking your work for punctuation errors and spelling mistakes, also keep an eye out for tautologies. In a well-crafted sentence, every word provides value and the sentence changes when you remove a single word. If you remove a word and the sentence remains the same, you discovered a redundancy.

When you find a tautology, take the time to rework the sentence.

  • Ask the question, “If I remove this phrase, will the sentence remain the same?”
  • Simply remove the lesser of the duplicate phrases.
  • Change one of the words into a new word that conveys unique information.

With these tricks, you can rid your writing of unwanted tautologies, and produce more impactful work.

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