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What Is Tautology? (with Examples)

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.
Ready for the Test?
Here is a confirmatory test for this lesson.

This test can also be:
  • Edited (i.e., you can delete questions and play with the order of the questions).
  • Printed to create a handout.
  • Sent electronically to friends or students.

See Also

Quotation marks to denote so-called Glossary of grammatical terms