Grammar Striking the Surplus from Tautologies |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Striking the Surplus from Tautologies

The English language includes the tools it needs to communicate with beauty, depth, and precision. Like any other healthy entity, it also moves most swiftly without extra weight. In the world of words, flabby noun phrases are known as tautologies.

Merriam-Webster online defines a tautology as “1a: needless repetition of an idea, statement, or word.”

Common English is rife with such excess. It often occurs because of needless descriptive emphasis or a simple lack of grammatical economy.

We touched on this issue in Pleonasms Are a Bit Much. In that entry, we defined a pleonasm as deriving from pleonazein, a Greek word meaning “more than enough.” “The jolly man was happy” is one such example of adding a pound made more of fat than muscle.

We return to this subject and call it by its other namesake so you might recognize this intruder of our language by either ID card it carries.

Tautologies will never be fully edited from spoken language simply because of inherent informality; only a well-trained and -disciplined mind will omit extra words during a conversation in motion.

Careful writers, on the other hand, have the time and the will to infuse their linguistic diets with protein. They cut the sugar and carbs that add calories without nutrients to their thoughts.

They avoid composing phrases and sentences such as:

each and every one  Choose “each one” or “every one”–both are clear when standing alone.

above and beyond   “Beyond” is all you need in a statement such as “Her report went beyond expectations.”

vast majority   You hear it all the time, and you might even use it yourself. If you do, you now recognize that “majority” means the largest part of the group, so you can cast the “vast” and not lose your meaning.

forward planning   If “plan” means “to devise or project the realization or achievement of” or “to make plans” (as in “plan ahead”), is it possible to plan backwards?

mass exodus   Yet another pudgy phrase we hear or use all the time. An “exodus” is defined as “a mass departure,” so we know which word need not join the evacuation.

Trained expert, violent explosion, invited guest, identical match: The line continues out the door and winds its way to the streets of congested communication outside.

You have the power to improve the speed and flow of traffic in English. Just say “ta-ta” to tautologies by reviewing word choices and ensuring you enhance your meanings rather than duplicate them.

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

25 responses to “Striking the Surplus from Tautologies”

  1. Thanks to all of you who responded to this article. Most of the comments (the majority, ha ha) were in regard to “vast majority.” The following is representative of the thoughtful comments we received.

  2. Brian Hood says:

    Regarding your recent blog post on tautologies, I agree generally, which–by the way–is not a tautology because while I agree with most of your examples I don’t agree with them all. For example, rather than an identical match you can have a partial match, e.g., a partial match of a DNA profile but not enough DNA to say that it is an identical match.

    • This is another case where spoken idiom intrudes on careful, accurate writing. In speech, we all understand the speaker’s intent behind phrases such as a “partial match” or an “identical match.”

      However, let’s look at definitions of the word “match” in an applicable context:
      1. a person or thing that equals or resembles another in some respect.
      3. a person or thing that is an exact counterpart of another.

      1a: a person or thing equal or similar to another
      1c: an exact counterpart

      Even offers this:
      “Someone [or something] with a measure of an attribute equaling or exceeding the object of comparison.”

      Once more, we can get away with a “partial” or “identical” match in speech. In careful writing with accurate application of definition, we wouldn’t want to pair the concept of “partial” with the defined “exact” (also a synonym of “identical”), nor with the idea of equaling or exceeding.

      Even the more open-ended definitions (1 and 1a above) discount the idea of “partial” by allowing room for mere resemblance or similarity. A “partial match” would therefore still be a match.

      Rather than write “a partial match,” the careful writer would use “a resemblance” or “a similarity.” And rather than write “an identical match,” simply use “identical” or perhaps “exactly the same.”

  3. Julie says:

    Media and the legal profession are the worst culprits. I cringe at tautologies in media when I read them and try to not let it ruin my reading. The legal profession can be a bit different: there is a difference between an invited and an uninvited guest and redundancies like “each and every one” are used to try to make absolutely clear the intentions in agreements. An expert could be a person who naturally is good at something, say marksmanship, and obtained an “expert” rating whereas a person who was trained to use a certain weapon or weapons and reached a level of expertise is a trained expert. Many parents are experts in treating a cold yet they are not trained experts like nurses or doctors. I submit that a well-trained and disciplined mind could also use common tautologies when they are not actually tautologies.

  4. Natalie Spencer says:

    While I agree with most of your examples, I think “above and beyond” is acceptable.
    Above relates to depth and beyond refers to length (or distance). Therefore, a report that goes above and beyond would go into more depth about its points and cover more points than expected.

  5. Evelyn Morgan says:

    On the subject of unnecessary words, the phrase “keeps himself to himself” to be annoying. I hear it often in mystery films. Why not just say, “He keeps to himself”?

  6. Dr. Janelle Disney says:

    The term “guest” is used frequently by entities such as museums. However, I would not consider those visitors “invited.” In addition, socks match but are not identical. Food for thought!

  7. PeeJay O'Malley says:

    Repetitions that grind my gears: past history, past experience, future plans, preheat (the oven), totally destroyed, ex-Vietnam vet (if still alive), and just about any completely — completely nude, completely dark, completely changed (as in, “Her looks were completely changed.” If so, she’d look like a frog, not a human at all.), completely asleep, completely bogus, yada, yada, yada.

  8. PeeJay O'Malley says:

    High on your list of favorite tautologies ought to be the one I spotted at the entrance to our city council chambers. “Guns and other deadly weapons prohibited.”
    I asked the guard what kind of weapons are not deadly, thus were allowable, but he could not answer. It was his position that he did not write the law, he only enforced it. I wanted to ask how he could enforce a law he did not understand, but sensed his agitation. Still, I reasoned that if weapons are by nature intentionally deadly/dangerous, why would you need to repeat that sentiment.
    Also, in the history of Western civilization there has never been a woman who reported on a new human offspring without saying it was a LITTLE baby boy/girl. All babies are little, that’s why they are babies. But she cannot restrain from emphasizing it is “little.”

  9. Chad Dick says:

    Love all this apart from “vast majority.” When I am told that a majority supported an idea, I know only that it is more than 50%. It could be a difference of one person out of a million and one. When I am told a ‘vast majority’ supported an idea, the implication is that more than 80% (or so) were in support. I think the vast majority of people would understand the phrase in this way. If it is an issue that rests on a first-past-the-post principle, then the difference between a majority and a vast majority might not matter. But if it is something requiring a more subtle gauge of opinion then that difference is important.
    Really enjoy all your posts. They have been invaluable over the years. Keep up the good work.

    • The word “majority” can have three uses:
      1. a superiority in numbers
      2. the one of two or more sets that form the more numerous group
      3. “majority of” + plural noun, e.g., the majority of voters, schools, tow trucks

      The most pertinent definitions of “majority” at are:

      1. the greater part or number; the number larger than half the total (opposed to minority), e.g., the majority of the population.
      2. a number of voters or votes, jurors, or others in agreement, constituting more than half of the total number.
      3. the amount by which the greater number, as of votes, surpasses the remainder (distinguished from plurality).

      Merriam-Webster defines “majority” similarly as “3 a: a number or percentage equaling more than half of a total (a majority of voters, a two-thirds majority); b: the excess of a majority over the remainder of the total (margin won by a majority of 10 votes); c: the greater quantity or share (the majority of the time).

      The truth is prevailing current idiom accepts and allows the use of “vast majority”—few will raise an eyebrow at it. The issue lies in accuracy; writing permits more time for such thought and attention than speaking does.

      The careful, accurate writer will be more specific when desiring to modify “majority.” What is a “vast majority?” To some, it could be, say, 67%; to others, 73%; and to yet others, the most justified, 92%.

      Similarly, a “slim majority” could be perceived as 59%, 63%, or, among the most justified, 51%.

      By definition and rule, a “majority” is a number superior to another, even if it is just one greater than a half. A “slim” or “vast” majority is loose communication, and it leaves itself open to subjective interpretation.

      Rather than write “The bill passed by a slim majority,” write “The bill barely passed with a 52% vote.” Rather than write “A vast majority of stockholders believe company leadership should change,” write “Eighty-three percent of stockholders believe company leadership should change” or “More than three-fourths of stockholders…”

      We concede that because of accepted idiom/vernacular, “vast majority” will remain entrenched in spoken English. Written English can and should apply greater care and precision if the communicator wants to convey an idea beyond simply stating a larger group or superiority in number.

  10. Rosie B. says:

    I’m grateful for this tutorial and look forward to making my conversations and writings leaner.

  11. Anna Scotti says:

    Hello, thanks for a great lesson on tautology. However, I disagree about “trained expert.” There are experts who are not trained – that is, who are self-taught. For example, Susan is an expert parent. but no one trained her. Nancy is an expert gardener, entirely self-taught. You could pick nits about the definition of trained, but I think generally it implies, “Instructed by another.”

  12. Vines says:

    A lot of good info here and I agree with most of it. Vast majority and majority are two different things. There can be a majority in Mexico, Canada and the U.S.A. Put those majorities together and they become something different because now these majorities will find commonalities and these things will change the outlook of this more vast-majority. So vast majority and majority are different.
    While we are on the topic of redundancy, I need to ask about a question I have with a line of mine. I wrote: Coach blows his whistle, and each and every one of them move down the field on all fours.
    I did this to signify the “every one of them” was an “everyone” like a togetherness. They moved as one—the reason for using the word “move” in stead of “moves”. After I read this, I changed the sentence to Coach blows his whistle, and every one of them move down the field on all fours.
    Do you think people will judge this line in this future book as being incorrect? Should I just change it to conform with the popular consensus? And yes “consensus” and “popular consensus” are two different things. The popular consensus is “. . .every one of them moves down . . .” is correct and “. . .every one of them move down . . .” is incorrect. Though, the consensus is “. . . every one of them move down . . .” correct (under a certain circumstance).

    • Thank you for your feedback and insight.

      From the careful writer’s viewpoint, we still maintain that without specific numbers to support/substantiate, “vast majority” keeps the reader/audience in the shade of a thought.

      A “majority” means the larger portion of a group. Interpretations of “vast” could range from 65% to 95%. That 30% difference can be significant in conveying (or not) the majority’s preference. If we don’t know how large the majority is, including a vague descriptor such as “vast” can cloud intended meaning.

      At the same time, we maintain that “vast majority” is and will remain common in spoken language. Our primary aim is to support written language with the greatest precision.

      Concerning your question about subject-verb agreement in “Coach blows his whistle, and each and every one of them move down the field on all fours,” the sentence does not include an element that would substantiate a plural verb. Both “each” and “every one” would take the singular verb “moves.” “Each and every one” as a compound subject functioning as a singular unit would likewise take the singular verb.

      You might choose to retain the plural verb for intended style and effect, but you also keep open the likelihood someone may identify it as needing correction.

      (On a separate note, “each and every one” is often viewed by grammarians as excess wording; more-concise writing would use either “each” or “every one” instead of both.)

      To achieve your intended effect, a potentially effective revision could be “Coach blows his whistle, and all of them [or just all] move down the field on all fours.” While “all” is a collective noun that often takes a singular verb, grammar does allow more latitude for the plural if the writer wishes to convey a number of people.

      Other potential revisions could be “Coach blows his whistle, and all as one move down the field on all fours” or “Coach blows his whistle, and the team as one moves down the field on all fours.”

  13. Barbara F. says:

    How about “surrounding circumstances?”

    • We believe it could be classified as a tautology, particularly when we consider this definition of circumstance from Merriam-Webster: “the sum of essential and environmental factors (as of an event or situation) …”

      Once in a while a writer might use a construction such as “The panel is reviewing the circumstances surrounding the administrator’s dismissal.” However, we could replace “surrounding” with of, behind, or leading to and achieve the same aim.

      We’ll add this one to our list.

  14. mick thom says:

    Is last remaining excessive?

    • In most cases last remaining would constitute needless repetition. Think of a box of cookies. If only one is left, we might say I will eat the last cookie or I will eat the remaining cookie. In I will eat the last remaining cookie, last remaining would double up on the same idea.

  15. Jon Williams says:

    “Just say “ta-ta” to tautologies.” I like it but appears to be a tautology. You could have said “ta.” Of course, in that case you would be thanking tautologies for honing your precision in meaning enhancement. Sorry, couldn’t help myself; I’ll stop.

    • That’s clever, Jon. We were not aware that ta is a term for “thanks” (chiefly British). Because ta-ta, while chiefly British, is also a common colloquialism in America for “farewell” or “goodbye,” it’s not technically a tautology.

  16. Michelle Mathews says:

    One that has been making me a little crazy lately is “share out.” It has become an epidemic in my school district and makes me shudder every time it is uttered.

  17. Andy says:

    One that regularly comes up on BBC News is “potentially dangerous.” It drives me nuts. Surely the “potential” is already implicit in the word “dangerous” – ie something bad might happen. Something which is dangerous MAY kill or injure you, so it carries danger with it but it is not certain to hurt you at all. So the “potential” is already included and does not need repeating.

  18. Mark Heneghan says:

    “Return back,” “Still remains,” “They both are the same” – either “they are the same” or “they are both green” (or what ever element they share in question).
    “In any way, shape, or form” one, but not all three please.
    “It may, or may not.” “May” means a probability, not a certainty, therefore the “may not” is unnecessary.

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