Definition and Examples of Tautology

Tautology (derives from Greek tauto, “the same” and logos, “saying”), is a rhetorical device which consists in the wearisome and unnecessary repetition of the same idea in different words; as when Swift says, “In the Attic commonwealth, it was the privilege and birthright of every citizen and poet, to rail aloud and in public.

Examples and Observations

The following sentence from Tillotson contains numerous tautologies:

  • “Particularly as to the affairs of this world, integrity hath many advantages over all the fine and artificial ways of dissimulation and deceit; it is much the plainer and easier, much the safer and more secure way of dealing with the world; it has less of trouble and difficulty, of entanglement and perplexity, of danger and hazard in it. The arts of deceit and cunning do continually grow weaker, and less effectual and serviceable to them that use them.”

So also in Addison:

  • “The dawn is overcast; the morning lowers,
    And heavily in clouds brings on the day.”
  • [These three clauses all express the same fact.]

Through constantly aiming at a balanced structure of sentence, Johnson sometimes approaches this fault. Speaking of the style of Pryor, he says:

  • “He had often infused into it much knowledge and much thought; had often polished it into elegance, often dignified it into splendor, and sometimes heightened it to sublimity; and did not discover that it wanted the power of engaging attention and alluring curiosity.”

The Use of synonymous words and phrases is only considerable under the following circumstances

When one word does not express the full sense intended:

No two words are exactly synonymous for all purposes; one has a shade that the other wants; and it may take both to give the whole meaning. Hence, we are accustomed to such phrases as “ways and means,” “passing and transitory,” “subject-matter.” In legal documents, synonymous words are joined or the sake of exhaustive completeness. When Wordsworth couples “the vision and the faculty divine,” he intends that the two phrases, which are nearly alike, should unfold between them a greater amount of meaning than either conveys.

For the sake of putting greater stress on the prominent points of the exposition:

Good exposition requires that the main subject should be distinguished from the subordinate parts. This is affected, among other ways, by dwelling longer upon it; and repetition by means of equivalent phrases may be occasionally resorted to. “The head and front of his offending:” “the end and design.

It is implied in the foregoing principle that wordy diffuseness should be especially avoided in subordinate clauses and statements.

It is often better that a subordinate clause should be feeble or obscure, than that it should be raised out of its place by amplification. Gibbon, speaking of the deification of the Roman Emperors, says: “This legal, and, it should seem, injudicious profanation, so abhorrent to our stricter principles, was received with a very faint murmur by the easy nature of PolytheismOpens in new window.” This is better than, “by Polytheism, which was of a nature easy and accommodating.

In strong passion, when the mind is disposed to dwell upon the object of the passion:

Chatham’s famous address abounds in tautologies referable to this principle. “I am astonished, I am shocked, to hear such principles confessed; to hear them avowed in this house and in this country.” So, Bolingbroke exclaims in an invective against the times: “But all is little, and low, and mean among us.” Cicero’s exultation over Catiline’s discomfiture was expressed by the use of four verbs nearly equivalent in meaning – “Abiit, excessit, evasit, erupit.

Affection and admiration lead to similar repetitions. It is desirable to avoid such tautologies as the “first aggressor,” the “standard pattern,” the “verdant green,” “some few.” So, excess of inflection is objectionable; as “chiefest,” “extremest,” “worser,” “most highest.”

Further Readings:
Brett Zimmerman, Edgar Allan Poe: Rhetoric and Style | Tautologia (318)Opens in new window
Alexander Bain, English Composition and Rhetoric: A Manual | Tautology (69)Opens in new window