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In rhetoric, a tautology is a use of redundant language in speech or writing, or, put simply, "saying the same thing twice".


Tautology, often regarded as a fault of style, was defined by Fowler as "saying the same thing twice". In fact, it is not necessary for the entire meaning of a phrase to be repeated; if a part of the meaning is repeated in such a way that it appears as unintentional or clumsy, then it may be described as tautology. On the other hand, a repetition of meaning which improves the style of a piece of speech or writing is not usually described as tautology, although it may be a logical tautology. Below is a discussion of various patterns of semantic repetition and to what extent they are tautologies.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines tautology as "the saying of the same thing twice over in different words". In the spirit of pedantry, it should be noted that this statement is itself tautological (maybe intentionally, see below); by using the word "same", it is already implied that the thing has a plural value, so there is no need for the word "twice". It could also be argued that the word "over" is redundant in this context. The definition could instead read "the saying of something twice in different words" or "the saying of the same thing in different words".

But Shadwell's genuine night admits no ray;
His rising fogs prevail upon the day.
Besides, his goodly fabric fills the eye,
And seems designed for thoughtless majesty;
Thoughtless as monarch oaks that shade the plain,
And, spread in solemn state, supinely reign.
Heywood and Shirley were but types of thee,
Thou last great prophet of tautology.
(John Dryden's MacFlecknoe, an attack on the abilities of the playwright Thomas Shadwell)

Examples of tautology

The British supermarket Tesco sells a brand of the herb lemon thyme which it describes as having an "aromatic aroma". Non-cognate synonyms may also produce a tautology; "free gift" is tautologous because a gift, by definition, is something given without charge. Other examples of tautology include phrases such as "helpful assistance" and "new innovation".

Repetitions of meaning in mixed language phrases

Exact repetitions of meaning sometimes occur when multiple languages are used together, such as "The La Brea Tar Pits" (the The tar tar pits), "The hoi polloi" (The the many), "Sierra Nevada Mountains" (Snowy Mountains mountains),"Sahara Desert" (desert desert), "Shiba Inu dog" (small dog dog), "cheese quesadilla" (cheese cheese item), Mount Fujiyama (Mount Fuji mountain), "Lake Tahoe" (Lake Lake), "Chai Tea" (Tea Tea), "Salsa Sauce" (Sauce Sauce), "Table Mesa" (Table Table),"carne asada steak" (steak grilled steak), "Angkor Wat temple" (Angkor Temple temple) or East Timor (east east). The tautological status of these phrases is subjective, since they are only perceived as tautologous by people who understand enough of both languages to realize the redundancy.

Repetition of an abbreviated word

In some cases an acronym or abbreviation is commonly used in conjunction with a word which is actually part of the abbreviation. Examples are "ATM machine", "PIN number", "PAT testing", "HTML language", "VIN number", "MSDS sheet", "LCD display", "HIV virus","SIN number" (in Canada), "NIC card", "NT technology", "Gigaflops per second", "EMP pulse", "RAS syndrome" or "E3 expo". These are tautologies, although many of them pass unnoticed. In many cases the redundancy helps to disambiguate or clarify, such as with "ATM machine", where 'ATM' by itself has many other possible expansions.

Intentional repetition of meaning

A repetition of meaning may be intended to amplify or emphasize a certain aspect of the thing being discussed: for example, a gift is by definition free of charge, but one might talk about a "free gift" to emphasize that there are no hidden obligations, financial or otherwise, or that the gift is being given out of free will. This is related to the rhetorical device of hendiadys, where one concept is expressed through the use of two, for example "goblets and gold" meaning wealth, or "this day and age" to mean the present time. Superficially these expressions may seem tautologous, but they are stylistically sound because the repeated meaning is merely a stylized way to express a single unified concept.

Pop culture examples of tautology

  • The late comedian Alan King used to tell this story: His lawyer asked him if he had ever drawn up a will. Alan said "No". The lawyer, in shock and horror, said, "If you died without a will, you would die intestate!" Alan looked up the word and found that it means "to die without a will". "In other words, if I die without a will, then I'll die without a will. This legal pearl cost me $500!"
  • United States President George W. Bush, before the Unity Journalists of Color convention on August 6, 2004, is quoted as saying, "Tribal sovereignty means that, it's sovereign. You're a -- you've been given sovereignty, and you're viewed as a sovereign entity. And, therefore, the relationship between the federal government and tribes is one between sovereign entities." [1]
  • One Dilbert cartoon takes this subject to a humorous extreme. Dilbert says he is working on a project that is known as "TTP". When asked what "TTP" stands for, Dilbert responds that it means "The TTP Project". This is not strictly a tautology, but a recursive acronym. Other examples of recursive acronyms are GNU, PHP, and WINE.
  • The phrase "A is A" is a favorite of Ayn Rand. The idea frequently appears in her Objectivist philosophy, especially as written in her novel Atlas Shrugged.
  • Douglas Adams used the phrase, "Anything that happens, happens. Anything that in happening causes something else to happen, causes something else to happen. Anything that in happening happens again, happens again. Though not necessarily in that order.", in his book "Mostly Harmless".

See also

External links

cs:Tautologie da:Tautologi de:Tautologie et:Tautoloogia es:Tautología fr:Tautologie he:טאוטולוגיה (ספרות) hu:Tautológia nl:Tautologie (stijlfiguur) no:Tautologi pt:Tautologia ru:Тавтология sv:Tautologi (språkvetenskap) zh:重言式

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