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.