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