What Is Tautology? (with Examples)

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Tautology is the needless repetition of a single concept.

tautology definition and examples

Easy Examples of Tautology

Look at these examples of tautology:
  • At that moment in time, the stars dimmed.
  • (It's always a moment in time.)
  • The man who used to live next door is a single bachelor.
  • (Bachelors are always single.)
  • The vote was totally unanimous.
  • (The word totally doesn't add anything.)
  • He was in a three-way love triangle.
  • (The word three-way doesn't add anything.)
  • He left at 3 am in the morning.
  • (The term am means in the morning.)
  • The reason is because he left during the dinner.
  • (The word because doesn't add anything.)
  • In our assessment, we think he is alive.
  • (In our assessment and we think do the same job.)
  • This is a new innovation.
  • (Innovations are always new.)

Real-Life Examples of Tautology

  • Many people's commute back and forth to work requires them to spend hours behind the wheel each day.
  • (The words back and forth don't add anything.)
  • That's one of the great advantages of age...you can throw temper tantrums, and nobody minds. (Author James Lee Burke)
  • (The word temper doesn't add anything.)
On occasion though, a tautological phrase reads better than the non-tautological version or gives the emphasis sought by the author.
  • I asked the question, "Will I ever perform again?" (Musician Brian Harvey)
  • (The words the question could be removed, but the result would be less empathic.)
  • Everyone is the sum total of past experiences. A character doesn't just spring to life at age thirty. (Writer Kelley Armstrong)
  • (The words total and past could be removed, but sum total and past experiences are set terms.)
  • Of course, everybody's thinking evolves over time. (Ethiopian politician Meles Zenawi)
  • (The words over time could be removed, but the emphasis on time would be lost.)
Let's get technical for a second. In the examples below, quotation marks are used to denote "so-called"; therefore, the use of the word "so-called" is needless repetition.
  • He placed the chicken on the so-called "clean" surface.
  • His so-called "mates" left him in the tree.
  • (Technically, there is no need for the word "so-called" in these two examples because that's what the quotation marks denote.)

Why Should I Care about Tautology?

Spotting tautology is useful for eliminating redundant words, which will not only reduce your wordcount but also portray you as a clear thinker. Here are some tautological terms that could be shortened safely (i.e., with no loss of meaning):
  • Armed gunman
  • Attach together
  • Depreciate in value
  • Warn in advance
Be careful though. Sometimes, a tautological term work will work better for you than the non-tautological version.

  • I need to ask the question.
  • We evolve over time.
Sometimes, you have to think whether something really is a tautology. Look at these examples:
  • She died of a fatal dose of heroin.
  • Argument For: You don't need the word fatal.
    Argument Against: She might have died from a non-fatal dose, i.e., one that wouldn't kill most people.

  • Present a short summary.
  • Argument For: Summaries are always short.
    Argument Against: Er, no they're not.

  • Enter your PIN number in the ATM machine.
  • Argument For: The N in PIN stands for Number, and the M in ATM stands for Machine.
    Argument Against: Yeah, okay. But, PIN and ATM have become standalone terms these days. It's helpful to put the words number and machine to ensure everyone understands.
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

Quotation marks to denote so-called Glossary of grammatical terms