76 – Grammar shot: Tautology

It is said that Britain’s middle class starts the day against the soundtrack of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme – the most influential early-morning purveyor of news and current- affairs reportage. If I’m sentient at that time of day, and not otherwise engaged, I also tune in. A few days ago, the commentary covered the ill-fated American adventure at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, with the presenter hitting us with this:

“The planned overthrow of Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs was a fiasco that failed.”

Now, have you ever heard of a fiasco that succeeded? No, me neither – simply because a fiasco means ‘a complete failure’. This is why this statement is tautological.  Tautology is the use of a word or words which repeat an idea unnecessarily. It is thus a stylistic fault involving redundancy. What the presenter should have said was this:

The planned overthrow of Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs was a complete fiasco.

The planned overthrow of Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs was a venture that failed.

Tautology is surprisingly common – even among educated adults. Let me give you an example from A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language by four professors of English, for whom it is an uncharacteristic lapse, their sizeable Grammar being probably the most authoritative source of information about how the English language is organised.

“The wording should not be misunderstood in some sense not intended by the speaker.”

How often do we actually intend to misunderstand messages? Well, it does happen, but that’s not what was meant by the four linguistic luminaries, who should have written this:

The wording should not be interpreted in some sense not intended by the speaker.

Tautology may also result from using adjectives alongside their synonyms. This is usually done to amplify a characteristic but always backfires. The four examples given below come from reputable sources, including the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) and Department for Education and Employment (DfEE). In each quote, one of the two highlighted adjectives is tautological and should, therefore, be removed.

“There is evidence of effective action on the main key issues.”  (Handbook for Inspecting Primary and Nursery Schools by OFSTED)

“(…) to understand features of formal official language (…). “ (Grammar for Writing by DfEE)

“(…) children spend introductory time with the reception class on a regular weekly basis.” (OFSTED inspection report)

“We think it is inconceivable that Spain should demand our sovereignty as the trade-off for having decent civilised relations.” (The Guardian)

Another type of tautology is when people use adjectives which express characteristics inherent in the nouns they modify. Examples include positive benefits (are there negative benefits?), a new innovation (is there an old innovation?), an unexpected surprise (is there an expected surprise?) and a negative prejudice (is there a positive prejudice?) Such tautological usage is just as common as the deployment of synonymous adjectives. The examples quoted below also come courtesy of educated adults.

“He is then ready to return to reality, and welcome its positive benefits [WRITE: benefits].” (Grammar for Writing by DfEE)

“Oramo said yesterday that his appointment had come as ‘an unexpected surprise[WRITE: complete surprise].” (The Daily Telegraph)

“Cut research and you slow new drug innovation [WRITE: innovation].” (The Sunday Times)

“One misconception is that positive self-esteem [WRITE: EITHER self-esteem OR positive self-image] exists independently of skills and abilities.” (The Independent)

So mind how you go: tautology is a trap ensnaring even those whom we might reasonably expect to be able to spot and avoid it.

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30 thoughts on “76 – Grammar shot: Tautology

  1. Hello again Anna,

    With the help of Pro Writing Aid on my PC and the careful eyes of Maggie James I am learning more about this topic, but until now didn’t know its name.
    This is a really useful post for all writers, and something I’m sure the majority must have done at least once.

    All the best.

    Mark.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Millions of thanks, Diana! Well, English grammar is a true passion of mine, so, yes, I do enjoy writing these posts. But the critical thing is whether they are enjoyed by readers. I’m trying to keep the audience in mind at all times and greatly value the feedback I get. 

      Like

  2. Spot on Anna. Though I was initially baffled by “tautology” in the title. The last time I remember the word being used was in connection with something that does not need to be proven; a truism, in Math class in school.
    Would “Thank you very much” qualify for the same treatment?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Ankur. Your interpretation is absolutely correct as far as logic is concerned; my interpretation applies to linguistics – so we are both right! But I don’t think “Thank you very much “would qualify – “Thank you honestly and sincerely” would (not that people say this, but I couldn’t think of a better example). All the best, Anna

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A little below he belt (and braces?)
    Surely ‘below’ is superfluous, unnecessary, repetitive tautology in: ‘ As before, the examples quoted below….’, since ‘as before’ indicates that the examples to be used will follow (at least in English syntax) and their location would only need to be specified if this were not the case.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Or ****** annoying that, when one sets oneself up as a grammar commentator, others take a paticular delight in trying to nit-pick! (Hope it’s taken in the spirit intended ;-))

        Liked by 1 person

      • Well, it’s not annoying, Tony: there would be something wrong with me if I couldn’t accept others’ points. The English language is far bigger than my ego, and if my own command of the language can be improved because of comments such as yours, so much the better! (I’m Polish, by the way.) :)

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