Writing (and Revisions) — Tautologies


Language is full of quirks that we often use as shorthand for communicating ideas.  When I moved to the Southern US, for example, I discovered the phrase “Bless your heart,” which holds several meanings depending on the intonation and context.  It can be used in the same way many people will say “Awwww” when a toddler says something cute.  But it can also mean “What you just said/did was really stupid, but you’re not too bright anyway, so I’ll laugh the whole thing off.”  It can also mean, “You’re really pissing me off, but I’m too polite to say much more,” usually followed my something far less polite.  And there’s far more.  It’s just one phrase, but it carries tons of meaning.  Utilizing language quirks (or inventing your own) can create colorful characters (I’ve used this Southern gem in my latest WIP) as well as add a sense of cultural depth to a location.

Other quirks of language, however, should be avoided.  Many are things we find acceptable in everyday usage but make for poor prose.  One, for example, is called a tautology.  A tautology is when you say the same thing twice in different words.  “Sat down” is a tautology for the act of sitting implies the downward motion.  Jack sat down in the chair. Take out that extra word (more concise, yeah!) and you get Jack sat in the chair. Get it?  Seems simple enough, I know, but you’ll be amazed at the number of tautologies in our language.  I have a running list that goes on for several columned pages.  Here is just a sample:

added bonus              add together             all complete/done

baby kid/kitten/puppy/etc.                        basic fundamental/principle

cash money               completely full          crazy maniac

deadly killer              empty vacuum          end result

fatal suicide               fiction novel              foreign imports

foresee the future    gambling casino         I myself

initial introduction     I personally              intimately familiar

join together (great song by The Who, but still a tautology)

later on                       local neighbors           mass extinction

mix together               natural instinct           new beginning

old relic                       orbiting satellite         past accomplishment

popular consensus     previously existing     quickly flee

receive back               recoil back                  repeat over

rough sketch              seek out                      serious crisis

skirt around               sum total                     temporary reprieve

tiny bit                        trace amount              unintentional mistake

violent explosion        whittle down              wink an eye

Some of these are obvious.  Since “sum” and “total” mean the same thing, there’s no need to write both words.  Some are a matter of implication.  All explosions, by definition, are violent events, so to write “violent explosion” is silly.  Likewise, all imports to your country have to come from outside your country (otherwise they wouldn’t be imports) and are therefore, from a foreign country, so “foreign imports” is a tautology.  Others in this list might take a few extra moments of thought, but I’ve been through every one on my full list and they all qualify.

Note, though, that sometimes a different (but related) word can be used to illustrate that very difference and not be a tautology.  For example, while “natural instinct” is a tautology because all instincts are, by definition, natural — you’re born with them — in many of our fantasy worlds, like Faith’s Jane Yellowrock series, there are unnatural creatures that may have unnatural instincts.  The phrase “unnatural instincts” is not a tautology but twists a common tautology in order to jar the reader’s attention.

Most of the time, however, you should go through your manuscript and remove these extra words.  You’ll have a clearer, leaner work.  And if you happen to use a lot of tautologies, you may just free up enough word-space to fill it back in with character development, better descriptions, a more solid plot, and other goodies!

SINCE you all asked for it: here’s the current full list in .rtf  — Tautologies


53 comments to Writing (and Revisions) — Tautologies

  • Great list, Stuart. A couple fo these I had to catch myself (“foreign imports,” “mass extinction”) before realizing they were tautologous. Still trying to decide if there’s emphasis-value in any of the extra words, but your point i s agreat one. Can I add one I see in a lot of (padded) student papers which I’ve cited as a pet peeve before: “throughout the entire” novel/play or whatever. Arrrg!

  • AJ — I’ve pondered the emphasis-value idea before but I’ve yet to find an example to support it. Often, tautologies exist as a part of our spoken language and as such they tend to lose that very emphasis. When you write “foreign imports” or “sit down,” it’s kind of like writing the tag “he said.” People just process it without really reading it. So, unless somebody can prove otherwise, I feel pretty confident that, in the form of a tautology, you don’t get added emphasis.

  • Any combination of “re-” and “back” makes my skin crawl! “Refer back”, “return back”, “reply back”…*pulls hair and screams*

    Bless their hearts.

  • Excellent post, Stuart. Anything to tighten up the old word count. If you can leave the redundncaies out of the first draft, great. If not, a purposely search for them is in order.

    I once heard an expression that has always stuck with me. “Strive for elegant concision.” I wish I could remember the source, but alas, I don’t. Source or no, it sums up my goals as a writer quite neatly.

  • Wow, clearly I’m incapable of typing well before 9am. Now I know why I always wait until the afternoon to comment on these posts. Pretend I said, “If you can leave the redundancies out of the first draft, great. If not, a purposeful search for them is in order.”

    So much for elegant OR concise…

  • Misty — Yup. My full tautology file has numerous citations of that particular offense.

    Edmund — For the same reason, I generally don’t leave comments in the evening. My brain shuts off around dinner time. I like the quote. “Elegant concision” has a lovely ring to it.

  • *giggles* I read it as “redundicles” and I kinda liked the sound of it!

  • Deb S

    Great list, Stuart. One of my pet peeves is “a.m. in the morning.” I haven’t noticed it much when reading, but I hear it on TV all the time.

    Of course, I’m never redundant, ever.

  • Wow, your list of tautologies is completely and totally more better than mine. Seriously, I mean it….

    Nice list, and great advice to go with it. I do think that a totally cool geek game would be coming up with as many rock and roll song title tautologies as we can. There are probably tons.

  • Totally concede your point for the most part, but I think there are situations where context might make a difference. “Foreign imports” is absolutely a tautology, but in the mouth of a protectionist or politician looking to sound like a nationalist and stir up some xenophobic mood in his audience, the extra word (“foreign”) has value not overt in “imports.” No?

  • Stuart I would love to see the entire list. Here’s hoping you will post it sometime. And like AJ, I have a question about one. Orbiting satellites. The first two meanings from free dictionary:

    1. Astronomy A celestial body that orbits a planet; a moon.
    2. Aerospace An object launched to orbit Earth or another celestial body.

    As opposed to a device that is built to go into space, but hasn’t been launched, or has fallen, but which is still a … satellite? And as opposed to space junk, which, while in orbit, is still technically a satellite, but is also just junk.

    Scratches head. I think I’ll go back to bed.

  • Unicorn

    Wow! I’m sure my poor work in progress is completely bogged down with tautologies. I’ll have to add that to the list of stuff to fix in the revisions.
    Okay, so I have to be annoying… but isn’t there some value in the “baby puppy/kitten/kid/etc.” tautology? Perhaps a baby puppy is a very young one. Or maybe “really young puppy” is more correct.

  • This was a great learning lesson. Also seems like it would make for a fun seek’n’find game during the boring revision stage :) I’d love to procure your list and make it my own :)

    Question: Tautologies are fine in dialogue, right?

  • Cool. I’ll go looking for these in third draft rewrites since I’ll be working to take some words away this pass. However, I do agree a bit with AJ on the point about some possibly having emphasis or underlying meaning. And I also would not necessarily drop them from dialogue. This is how we speak and it makes for more natural dialogue and not clipped or stilted…unless clipped works for the character, of course.

  • OH! and in a different but possibly related note:
    I have had people feed back (hah! bet that’s another one!) that phrases such as “I saw” and “I thought” are superfluous, but it seems to me that (at least for the first) there must be some applications for it (esp if the previous bit you had “I sensed”)


  • Deb — In my full list, “a.m. in the morning” and other variations are there. But it does seem to be fading from usage.

    Dave — Next Con, after some beers, its rock-n-roll tautologies!!

    AJ — I agree that in contexts outside of prose work, tautologies have there place — politics being one.

    Faith — There’s no way to put a functioning satellite in space that’s not orbiting the planet. If it’s up there, it’s orbiting or something’s wrong. If it’s fallen, we might say it’s a “fallen satellite” because the word fallen is used to differentiate the noun from its norm. If the noun is used in reference to a satellite yet to be launched, the context implies that it’s not orbiting (otherwise people better duck!). Really it’s all about context in this case.

    Unicorn — Puppies, kittens, kids, or for JY fans, kits, are all babies. Some creatures, like humans, have special nouns for the youngest of babies such as infant or newborn, but really a puppy and a baby puppy are the same thing.

    Axisor — In dialogue, many prose rules go out the window because you’re quoting directly what somebody said. So, yes, tautologies can be used in dialogue. Like all rules though, it’s better if KNOW you’re breaking them.

    Daniel — Ummm, I think I addressed all your points in my other responses, so….glad you like the post! :)

  • Axisor — There are times when such phrases are extraneous, when the phrase is implied in the scene, paragraph, or sentence. But sometimes it’s important to specify that “I saw” something, instead of just knowing about it. “I thought” can be important if you don’t italicize thoughts (a stylistic choice) or if you need to make a clear distinction between what you the narrator are sharing as a comment with the reader and what you the character actually thought. That just off the top of my head. I’m sure there are plenty of other instances when you need those phrases. So, it just depends. If you’re getting complaints about it from your readers, you may be overusing those phrases — they may be your crutch words.

  • Stuart> Way cool. A lot of these irritate me, too. (Why can we use “sit up” but not “sit down”?) Though there is one about which I have a question: Trace amount. Now, I get that trace can be a noun “vanished without a trace…” but in specific cases, it is also used as an adjective. So, “while there were substantial amounts of sugar and flour, there were also trace amounts of cyandie.” Now, you could say “there was also a trace of cyanide” and I guess it is the same thing, but for some reason they resonate differently for me. You can say “while there was substantial sugar and flour, there was a trace of cyanide…” but that, too, sounds wrong. Maybe it just that I’m so used to the tautology that not using it sounds odd to my ear!

  • Hepseba ALHH

    and, because I’m opinionated, I have to add my two cents:
    1) Mass extinction: Since “extinction” means the eradication of one species, “mass extinction” means the eradication of many species, and does have added meaning in the mouth of a biologist or geologist.
    2) @ Faith, I agree with Stuart. If it’s a mechanical satellite not in orbit, then that has context around it to tell you it’s not in orbit. Otherwise, a mechanical satellite not yet launched may well be called “the spacecraft”, and spacecraft we’ve put in orbit around other planets may be called satellites or may still be called spacecraft for clarity. (Think “the Cassini spacecraft”.) Fundamentally, “satellite” means an object in orbit around something else, usually a planet. “The Galilean satellites” are the four biggest moons of Jupiter (discovered by Galileo).

  • Pea. What about “traces of cyanide”? :)

  • Pea — You’ve kind of already made the argument for me. The word “trace” already denotes the concept of amount. It may sound odd in your ear because in our spoken language, we use such phrases all the time. But just because we always do something, doesn’t make it right. 😉

    Hep — If you intend to use the word “mass” to denote multiple species, then the phrase would be “mass extinctions.” Note the plural at the end. As a singular, it is a tautology. Years back, when I started going through this list, it took me awhile to figure out this entry.

    AJ — That works for me, although I can see a distinction between traces and trace. Still, if it works for Pea’s ear, I’ll go with it!

  • Wouldn’t traces denote more than one trace though?

  • And I am slow today… 😉

  • Hepseba ALHH

    ah yes, I see the point for mass extinctionS. I’m just used to “mass extinction” as an adjective (“mass extinction event” – or should that be “mass-extinction event”?)

  • Stuart and AJ> Yeah, that makes sense to me. Thank goodness I don’t write police procedurals wherein I’d have to decide how to use “trace.” I’m trying to get my students, bascially, to eliminate “basically” from their writing. It basically doesn’t mean anything, basically. So I’m right there with you on that one.

  • Hmmm, sugar, flour, and a typo that forces us to pronounce “cyanide” like “candy…” (with a New Englander accent). Wonder what’s on Pea’s mind? Because I have a sudden yearning for cake!

    Great post, Stuart! I support Faith’s request and would love to have the entire list.

  • “Basically” is about the same as “um” in public speaking terms.

    Funny thing, the more you say “There was a trace of cyanide in his system” the more it begins to sound correct.

  • “Basically” is about the same as “um” in public speaking terms.

    That’s why I opt to say “Fundamentally…,” as in “Fundamentally, I’m just an idiot. Fundamentally speaking, that is.” Besides, the root word “fundament” is more fun than “basic,” especially in the connotation that your fundament is the “fleshy part of the human body that you sit on.”

    Notice the definition does not say “sit down on.”


  • This is fun! And you are right about orbiting satellite. Except when :
    “The French have a satellite.”
    “Is it an orbiting satellite?”
    “No. It is sitting in a French lab. It will be put into orbit next week, at which time it will become an orbiting satellite. We hope.”
    Still scratching my head on that one. Think I’ll take a nap.

  • Faith — Nope. I’m not letting it go. 😉 While what you wrote is acceptable for speech or in writing dialogue, if it were prose it would be: The French have a satellite. Is it in orbit? No, it’s sitting in a French lab. It will be put into orbit next week. We hope. —- Or something along those lines. That’s my final answer! 😀 Have a great nap!

  • You are right! I surrender! :)

  • POST UPDATE!! I’ve updated the post. At the end, you’ll now find a link to download the entire tautology list in its current form. If you come across new ones please let me know. Also, I think our esteemed webmaster will be adding the tautology list to our sidebar sometime soon. Enjoy!

  • “Lifeless body”? Really? I could see the issue with “lifeless corpse” hm… will have to think on this one.

    Thank for posting the list. I’m going to link my blog to this sometime soon-ish :þ

  • Don’t forget Thought to myself/himself/herself. Unless the person is telepathic, of course.

    Bless your heart is such a wonderful insult. I’ve heard it a lot in the context of admiring an ugly baby–Isn’t he cute, bless his heart. I have a friend who’s nicknamed a woman we know: Bless her heart. Yeah. Insultage.

    The only other one I would quibble on is new beginning, because while a beginning is by definition new, if you’ve made a previous beginning, then you might want to demarcate this one as a new one. Don’t you think? Though it all depends on context.

    Nothing gives me more irritation than fiction novel.

    I want to whittle up.

  • Must not open complete list file… Must not open complete list file…. Most not op ….

  • Axisor — If the body isn’t lifeless, we don’t refer to it as a body. “The body washed up on the shore” implies it’s dead. If it was alive, we would say something like “A wounded man washed up on the shore.” That’s my way of understanding that one.

    Diana — Yes. Thanks for this one!

    Pea — A bunch of comments back, you asked “Why can we use “sit up”?). The reason is because sitting implies downward motion. We have to add the word “up” in order to get the reader/listener to understand our meaning is different. Same goes for “stand down.” Also, both sitting up and standing down have little to do with sitting or standing. Sitting up means to straighten your body that’s in a seated position and standing down has to do with backing away from a violent stance or action.

  • Ahh… I’d use “body” if I didn’t know if the human/animal/mythical beast laying/floating/washinguponshore there were living or dead. But I’ve been known to be called a tease too.

    Hm… now I want to write about a necromancer just to get away w/ the phrases “lifeless body” and “lifeless corpse.” I guess I’m a troublemaker too :þ

  • If the body isn’t lifeless, we don’t refer to it as a body.

    Okay, my turn to disagree. “My entire body aches today”, “That man has one fine body” or “I’ve been lifting weights long enough to completely change my body”. We refer to living bodies as bodies all the time. Or I do, anyway.

  • Misty — My apologies for being unclear. I was referring to times when we are talking about corpses versus harmed but alive people, hence my example. You are right that when we are dealing with bodies in other contexts the word body is used. So, like some other tautologies, context is important.

  • Sarah

    Stuart – thank you. A lot of these are on my mental list of things I never, ever want to see again either, but I had to stop and think about some of them so you expanded my list.

    Picking up on the “bless his heart” insult, can someone on MW do a post on the use of injective in writing? I’d love to see a discussion of how to use coarse language, insults, etc effectively. AJ maybe or Faith? Both of you have very snarky characters but little or no actual profanity on the page. It’s funnier that way and I’d like to learn how to do it. (I’m thinking of Will’s neat understatement “I told him to go away,” which in context clearly means “I told him to f- off,” or whatever the Cresdon equivalent is.)

  • What drives me nuts are the anti-tautologies, when advertisers manage to contradict themselves. The most-frequently seen is “Up to 20% off and more!” And when some “added bonus” is said to be free when you buy X. It may be included at no extra charge, but if it’s truly free, I should just be able to take one home with no obligation to buy anything, yes?

  • Sarah

    Forgive me, my brain is dead today, no matter how much coffee I drink. I meant “invective,” as in insults, name calling, etc. I don’t know what injective would be. Something to do with a car’s engine probably.

  • Sarah — We’re a little brain dead some days. And, if injective isn’t a word, you should use it in a story. It sounds like it should mean something (I’m just too lazy right now to reach over my shoulder for the dictionary).

    Wolf — Advertising is guilty of some of the worst atrocities against the English language. I’d suggest taking your “free” items as a sign of protest, but that’ll probably land you in jail.

  • […] part of the book, and look for overused turns of phrase, tautologies (thanks Stuart Jaffe from Magical Words for mentioning those on MW), crutch words, and overall clarity.  I’ll also be expanding info on […]

  • Ahh, a required list of unnecessary redundancies. :)
    One that I have seen used a lot is : surplus to requirements
    I’m not entirely sure if it is a true tautology, but I’ve always assumed if something is surplus then it is more than required so for it to be surplus to requirements would mean that there is some requirement for a surplus and this surplus is even more than what is required or something.
    Like ‘sat down’ is ‘stood up’ or just about any sentence where the word ‘up’ or ‘down’ is used. I’ve been told by someone that anywhere you see the words ‘up’ or ‘down’ you should try removing it and see if the sentence still makes sense. If it does then keep the word out. eg: He put the book down on the table.

  • scion — I can thankfully say that, other than your comment, I’ve never seen “surplus to requirements” and that I’m equally befuddled as to its meaning. As for the up/down thing — yes. That’s a simple and effective method of checking.

  • My least favorite, and most frequent, comes from my college students: “Young girls.” This would be almost tolerable if it weren’t so often applied to teenagers, i.e. young women, about two years younger than the speakers themselves. “Young girl” always though has a hidden meaning of solicitude, as it is typically used when something bad has happened or the “child” has done something “young girls” ought not to do, like engaged in sex.

    Can we forgive Gary Puckett and the Union Gap for “Young Girl” as in too-young-for-me girl?

  • billnew — Like “up” and “down,” words such as “young” and “old” often create tautologies because the noun they are attached to already implies the age. “Girls” implies “young” just as “Grandfather” implies “old” — no need to write “old grandfather.” Words like “men” and “women” include such a wide age range that we tend to use adjectives when talking about people on the far ends of the scale. So “young women” and “old men” are not tautologies. And, as has been mentioned several times in this thread — context is key. There are contexts in which “young girl” would make sense — if you are trying to draw a distinction between several girls of different ages, for example — but as a general tautology, I’m in agreement with you.

  • […] Jaffe gives us a post on repetition, redundancies, tautologies, and saying the same thing twice… (or four […]

  • so just had a “Tautology” moment… related to Scion’s comment, actually “knelt down” I never have been able to figure out how to “knelt up” or “knelt sideways” yet but now I feel the need to try 😉 as well as remove the “down” from my sentence

  • Axisor — Just don’t hurt yourself! :)

  • Razziecat

    I’m so glad someone mentioned “thought to myself” because that one drives me crazy! I would also like to submit “repeat again.” Unless one is doing something for a third time (at least), then only the word “repeat” is needed.

    Not sure what is wrong with “zoom up.” I understand “zoom out” and “zoom in” — as in the use of a camera lens. I thought in general use, “zoom” means “to move speedily” (to paraphrase my dictionary). So could one not “zoom down” or “zoom across” just as easily as “zoom up,” and thus need to be specific about the direction?

  • Stuart,

    Looks like I missed the party on this one, but I still wanted to add my own contribution to the tautology discussion: ANYTHING intended to modify “unique”. (most unique, completely unique, very unique, …) Ack!