Tautology is the needless repetition of a single concept.

Easy Examples of Tautology

  • He is a single bachelor.
  • (Bachelors are always single.)
  • The vote was totally unanimous.
  • (The word totally doesn't add anything.)
  • He was in a three-way love triangle.
  • (The word three-way doesn't add anything.)
  • At that moment in time, the stars dimmed.
  • (It's always a moment in time.)

Real-Life Examples of Tautology

  • Many people's commute back and forth to work requires them to spend hours behind the wheel each day.
  • (The words back and forth don't add anything.)
  • That's one of the great advantages of age…you can throw temper tantrums, and nobody minds. (Author James Lee Burke)
  • (The word temper doesn't add anything.)
On occasion though, a tautological phrase reads better than the non-tautological version or gives the emphasis sought by the author.
  • I asked the question, "Will I ever perform again?" (Musician Brian Harvey)
  • (The words the question could be removed, but the result would be less empathic.)
  • Everyone is the sum total of past experiences. A character doesn't just spring to life at age thirty. (Writer Kelley Armstrong)
  • (The words total and past could be removed, but sum total and past experiences are set terms.)
  • Of course, everybody's thinking evolves over time. (Ethiopian politician Meles Zenawi)
  • (The words over time could be removed, but the emphasis on time would be lost.)
Let's get technical for a second. In the examples below, quotation marks are used to denote "so-called"; therefore, the use of so-called is needless repetition.
  • He placed the chicken on the so-called "clean" surface.
  • His so-called "mates" left him in the tree.

Why Should I Care about Tautology?

Spotting tautology is useful for eliminating redundant words, which will not only reduce your word count but also portray you as a clear thinker. Here are some tautological terms that could be shortened safely (i.e., with no loss of meaning):
  • Armed gunman
  • Attach together
  • Depreciate in value
  • Warn in advance
Be careful though. Sometimes, a tautological term work will work better for you than the non-tautological version. Also, occasionally, you have to think whether something really is a tautology.
  • She died of a fatal dose of heroin.
  • (Argument For: As she died, you don't need the word fatal.
    Argument Against: She might have died from a non-fatal dose, i.e., one that wouldn't kill most people.)
  • Present a short summary.
  • (Argument For: As a summary is always short, you don't need the word short.
    Argument Against: A summary is not always short.)
  • Enter your PIN number in the ATM machine.
  • (Argument For: You don't need the word number after PIN (N = number) or the word machine after ATM (M = machine).
    Argument Against: PIN and ATM have become standalone terms. It's helpful to include number and machine for clarity.)

Key Point

Remove the redundant words in a tautology. However, if you lose something by removing the redundant words (e.g., emphasis, desired flow of text, clarity), put them back in.
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