Let’s talk tautologies: The pitfalls (and perks) of redundant writing 

We give tautologies a bad rap here at CSA.

Because most of the time, these writing redundancies are unintentional. Indeed, we often don’t even realise we’re using them. Although we should – because tautologies can bog our sentences down in verbiage, making them flowery, long-winded and convoluted.

But are tautologies really ALWAYS bad? And is it possible that they could even give your copy impact – and a cheeky punch – every once in a while?

Here, we unpack all things tautologies. What they are. How to spot them in the wild. When it’s okay to use them. And when to steer clear!

First up, what is a tautology?

Tautologies happen when you use different words or phrases that express the same meaning, together. Examples include:

  • ATM machine 
  • New innovation 
  • Current status  
  • Added bonus
  • Previous experience
  • 9am in the morning
  • Mutual agreement
  • Repeat again
  • Progress forward  
  • True facts  

How can you identify a tautology?

As writers, it’s almost like we’re innately programmed to write tautologies. So, they’re not too hard to find.

Usually, tautologies are neighbouring words like:

  • Scorching hot (could just be ‘scorching’ or ‘hot’)
  • Close proximity (proximity, by definition, means close by)

Other times, tautologies are a repetition of the same word or phrase:

  • It’s either broken or not broken.
  • To be or not to be (Shakespeare, does this really make sense?)

These are called logical tautologies. They cancel themselves out since they state both possibilities.

Are tautologies always bad?

Tautologies are typically unnecessary fluff. They rarely add value because they simply repeat what has already been said.

But sometimes – and we mean sometimes – a tautology can actually add impact and help you drive home a point. 

For example, consider the phrase ‘free gifts’, a commonly used phrase in advertising. 

Despite being a tautology, the ‘free’ emphasises the idea that the item being offered comes at no cost to the consumer, which attracts attention and encourages engagement. Likewise, the word ‘gift’ carries positive connotations, suggesting generosity and goodwill. 

And by combining both words, advertisers create an added sense of excitement and incentive for us to take advantage of the offer.

They’re great when you really want to drive home a point. Like in our previous example, ‘broad’ can highlight how comprehensive a retailer’s selection of products is. 

Where should I incorporate tautologies?

The key idea is to be intentional with your tautologies; know the rules, so you can break them.

It begs the question – when is a tautology appropriate?

A speechwriter, for instance, might use tautologies in a parallel structure. It’s a handy rhetoric device, repeating the same pattern of words or structure for impact. They’re a real attention-grabber:

Pick me, choose me, love me. (Thank you, Meredith Grey!)

When should I avoid tautologies?

A word of warning: once you start noticing tautologies, you might not be able to stop. We call this the ‘curse of linguistics’. (Or ‘The Pringle Effect’.)

So – now you’re seeing tautologies left right and centre, where should you avoid them?

A common example is the adverb ‘personally’ – and we get it. When you’re emailing a colleague or a client, it adds that personal touch. But sometimes it’s better to be succinct and just get the message across.

Another example is compounding adjectives with similar meanings. We know that your staff are ‘bright, friendly and warm’… but do you really need all three?

Tautologies: our final conclusion

So, what did we learn about tautologies?

That – when used sparingly and strategically – they might very well be a necessary requirement. Provided, that is, you’re intentional with how you use them. Tautologies can emphasise your message, convey urgency or show some wit.

But avoid tautologies when you can be succinct. Because removing them will almost always tighten up your writing. Making it sharper, slicker, scannable – and more readable to boot.

Looking to learn more about tautologies? Or tips to touch up your writing? Join us at our next public writing workshop!