When someone says the same thing twice, they’re likely using a tautology. The phrase, word, or morpheme might be used twice, three times, or more. Tautologies are a common part of the English language. They are sometimes used purposefully and sometimes used accidentally.
Definition of Tautology
Tautology is the repetition of words with similar meanings. It stands apart from repetition, in most scholars’ eyes, due to the fact that different words with the same meanings are used. Without understanding what the words mean, a reader may go unaware that a tautology is being used. For others, repetition and tautology are essentially the same, and that repeated words are also examples of tautologies. There are numerous different kinds of tautology and reasons why someone might choose to use one.
Tautologies can appear in academic writing, poetry, novels, plays, and more. In all of these examples, they can be used accidentally and purposefully. In poetry, one might choose to use a tautology in order to reemphasize something they’ve already stated. It can be used to create a particular effect and be an integral part of poetic language. It might also be used to create intentionally ambiguous statements, express affection, derision, excitement, and more. In another instance, it might be used in dialogue to create humor or make the reader see a character in a certain way.
When used accidentally, writers may find themselves criticized for their tautologies. Most formal writing should not use this literary device. This is due to the fact that repeated information is usually unnecessary and can make the writer seem unprofessional. Usually, tautologies are used unintentionally.
Parallelism and Tautology
Just like with repetition and tautology, there is a distinct difference between parallelism and tautology. With parallelism, the same thing is said twice with as few distinctions as possible. With tautology, the same thing is said twice with different words. For example, these sentences from The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien:
Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true.
Here, readers can see a good example of parallelism. The same structure is used with a few words changed. By using this literary technique (purposefully), O’Brien is creating an interesting statement about the absurdity of war and how impossible it is to define. If this same quote was to be rewritten as an example of a tautology. It might read:
Almost everything is true. Nearly all of it is correct.
In this example, the writer is saying the same exact thing in both sentences with different words.
Repetition and Tautology
Often debated is the difference between tautologies and examples of repetition. The latter is generally classified as the use of the same ideas, words, information, imagery, or sounds in writing. This means that there are parts of repetition in tautologies, but the two stand apart for a distinct reason. Tautologies repeat information but use different words. For example, in ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ by Robert Frost has a well-known example of repetition. The lines read:
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep
This is a great example of repetition. The same words, image, and meaning are repeated exactly. If these lines were transformed into an example of a tautology, they might read:
And miles to go before I sleep.
Plus a distance to travel before going to bed.
Both lines have the same meaning, but different words are used. It’s clear why Frost chose to use repetition in these lines but also how tautology, if well-crafted, can be used to create an interesting poetic effect.
Read more Robert Frost poems.
Example of a Tautology in Literature
The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe
Throughout ‘The Raven,’ readers can find great examples of tautologies and more general examples of repetition. The poem repeats the same rhymes, refrains, and phrases multiple times. This helps convey the haunting atmosphere the poem is so celebrated for. The speaker is trapped in an endless, pointless conversation with a raven and his own fear about what’s going on in his world. Consider these lines from the poem as an example of a tautology:
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
In these lines, the poet uses the phrases “there came a tapping” and “someone gently rapping.” “Gently rapping” and “tapping” is an example of a tautology. These words are used in order to repeat the “-apping” end-sound and therefore create a great example of internal rhyme.
Read more Edgar Allan Poe poems.
Why Do Writers Use Tautologies?
Writers use tautologies when they want to repeat information with different words. It is usually used accidentally but can be applied purposefully in various types of literature. When used accidentally, it’s usually due to a writer’s desire to add more words to their work or use as many vocabulary words as possible. When used purposefully, it can make one’s writing sound more poetic and interesting. It can also help to drive home a point that’s particularly important in a passage.
It is the use of different words or phrases with the same meaning.
They can negatively affect one’s writing when they don’t add anything to the meaning. They are usually an unneeded repetition of information.
In logic, tautology is a formula that’s true in every interpretation.
An example of a tautology is: “We’re meeting at 12:30, thirty minutes after noon.”
A contradiction is a statement that’s false due to the form in which it’s presented. A tautology is true due to the form in which it’s presented.
Related Literary Terms
- Anaphora: the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession.
- Epistrophe: the repetition of the same word or a phrase at the end of multiple clauses or sentences.
- Anadiplosis: the repetition of words so that the second clause starts with the same word/s that appeared in the previous.
- Antimetabole: the repetition of words, in reverse order, in successive clauses.
- Antistrophe: a rhetorical device that’s concerned with the repetition of the same word or words at the end of consecutive phrases.
- Listen: Tautologies and Contradictions
- Watch: Weird, Strange, and Fascinating Expressions
- Listen: English Tautologies