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Tautology: Definition and Best Examples

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  Teri Lapping  —  Grammar Tips
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Are you redundant when you write?

The word tautology refers to a phrase in which the same meaning is expressed twice. 

The word comes from the Greek “tauto” meaning “same” and “logy" meaning “logic.” 

The use of tautology in your writing can give the impression that you are careless in your choice of vocabulary.
 
On the other hand, tautology can be used with intention, adding emphasis, clarity, and an occasional twist.


There are two types of Tautology: 

1. Verbal Tautology
2. Logical Tautology. 



What is Verbal Tautology?


Verbal tautology is the use of two words that mean the same thing in the same sentence.

For example:

I personally sent her an invitation.”

This is an example of a tautology because the word “I” is already used to indicate who is doing the inviting. When I use the word “personally,” I am merely repeating what I have already said. If I remove the word “personally” from the sentence, the meaning will remain clear. 

However, a tautology is not always a poor choice of words. The use of “personally” may be a conscious choice, emphasizing that it is “I” who sent the invitation rather than someone else. 

Consider the following example:

I personally sent her an invitation; you had your secretary invite her."



More Examples of Verbal Tautology:


For what purpose can tautologies be used?

The italicized words in the following sentences are examples of tautology.
 
*Are both words are needed to convey the point. 
*Does the use of both words add or distract from the sentence?
*Is the use of these two words redundant?


Tautology can be used for emphasis:

“The little girl explained to her mom that she drew the picture herself.”

(This use of tautology is redundant.)

“Although the little boy claimed that the picture was his, the little girl explained to her mom that she drew the picture herself.” 

(As opposed to the previous sentence, tautology is used here for emphasis between the boy and the girl’s claim.)


Tautology can be used for clarification:

“The frozen ice cream is in the freezer.” 

(This use of tautology is redundant.)

“Put the frozen ice cream back into the freezer and throw the melted ice cream away.”

(As opposed to the previous sentence, tautology is used here for clarification between “frozen” and “melted.”)


Tautology can be used to add poetic rhythm and beauty to a sentence:

“It was the start of the sunset; first the colors muted, then the dusk spread over the forest.”

(This sentence does not use tautology. It is a fine sentence.)

“It was the start of the evening sunset; first the colors muted, then the dusk spread over the forest.” 

(The addition of the word “evening,” though tautological, adds a poetic rhythm to the sentence.)


Tautology can be used to bring a dramatic feel to the sentence:

“I saw it, it was unbelievable!”
 
(This sentence does not use tautology.)

I saw it with my own eyes, it was unbelievable!” 

(This use of tautology makes the sentence more dramatic.)


Tautologies are often used in Abbreviations and Acronyms:

For example: 

PIN number = Personal Identification Number number  
(Using the word “number” is a tautology.)

ATM machine = Automated Teller Machine 
(Using the word “machine” is a tautology.)

COVID-19 virus = Corona Virus Disease virus
(Using the word “virus” is a tautology.)



What is Logical Tautology?


Logical tautology is a statement of logic that is true in all the various circumstances of the statement. Usually, the use of either/or can create such a statement. 

For example:

“Either the woman is a doctor, or she is not a doctor.”

 What if she is a firefighter? Is this statement still true. Yes, it is. That is why it is a logical tautology.

Notice that this statement cannot be false. It is logical that she is or isn’t a doctor. The sentence itself contains all the possibilities. 

Now consider the following statement:

“Either the woman is a doctor, or she is a dentist.”

 Well, what if she is a firefighter? Is this statement still true? No, this statement would not be true. So, this is not a logical tautology.



Quiz Yourself: Is This Sentence a Tautology?
 
1. “Either it will snow tomorrow, or it won’t.”

2. “The teacher yelled loudly at the unruly student.”

3. “Either I will go to the movies, or I will go see that new play.”
 
(The answers are provided below.)


Final Thoughts: What to do with a Tautology?

*Remove tautologies from your writing when they do not add something new or useful to the sentence.

*Use one descriptive word instead of two tautological words.
 
*Use the following 'red flag' words with care because they are often unnecessary:

very, really, so, just, quite, that, totally, already, it was apparent, and there is/are.


Answers to Quiz:

1. Yes, this sentence is a logical tautology because, no matter what the weather, this statement remains true.

2. Yes, this sentence is a verbal tautology because, by its nature, yelling is loud. 

3. No, this sentence is not a logical tautology because I might not go to the movies or to a play; I might stay at home, making this sentence false.


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