Louis is presenting a book report to his English class. He starts by saying, “Personally, in my opinion, I think that the celebrated book The Grapes of Wrath is an admirable book. There are some necessary requirements that you must have in order to understand the book, so I’ll continue my book report by giving a short summary of the book.”
You may have noticed several redundancies in Louis’ speech. When he uses the adverb “personally,” listeners know that he will state his own ideas. By following this adverb with phrases saying that he is giving his own thoughts and opinions, Louis is just restating the implications of the first word he said. This type of repetition is called tautology. Tautology can be more difficult to spot than simple repetition because it is mainly a repetition of ideas rather than words.
Definition of Tautology
According to Oxford English Dictionary, a tautology is “A phrase or expression in which a word, phrase, idea, or argument is redundantly repeated.”
The word tautology is derived from the Latin and Greek uses of the word tautologia. In Greek, the word literally means “saying the same.” The first use of the modern form, tautology, was in 1655 in William Gouge and Thomas Gouge’s book Learned Commentary on the Hebrews where they said, “there is no tautology, no vain repetition of one and the same thing therein.” However, speakers and writers have been using tautologies, intentionally or unintentionally, for much longer than the term has been around. Even famed figures have used tautologies. In Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, for example, he said, “With malice toward none, with charity for all.” Just like Louis, Lincoln repeats an idea in different words.
While Lincoln’s tautology is a useful tool in furthering his rhetorical purpose, Louis’ is not. Although the President’s listeners might expect that there should be “charity” in the absence of “malice,” Lincoln makes that connection explicit, which is important for this occasion, as people have less time to analyze spoken words than they do written words. Lincoln also uses tautology as a way to draw attention to the “charity” he claims he will give to people, which is another vital tool for him as a politician trying to gain the support of millions of Americans.
Louis’ tautologies, on the other hand, are actually harmful to his purpose. As a student giving a speech to his class, Louis intends to persuade his teacher that he deserves a good grade. He could do this by creating an academic style using concise word choice, but using tautologies has the opposite effect. For example, when Louis says that in his “book report” he will give a “summary of the book,” he reiterates what a book report consists of, which is unnecessary, as the term should be understood by everyone in the class.
Although it is common to mistakenly use tautologies in this way, Lincoln proves that they can also be used as tools for emphasizing the importance and implication of an already stated point. Once you get the hang of tautologies, you can even use them to add musicality to lyrics and poetry, or to create a humorous effect in otherwise concise speech. Thus, it is important to only use tautologies sparingly and intentionally in order to achieve your greater rhetorical purposes.