Blog - Proofreading and Copy Editing

Let’s not overexaggerate – avoiding tautology

Former US president George W Bush caused linguists much amusement/annoyance during his time in office for his skilful use of tautology. We have Dubya to thank for such unnecessary terms as ‘to misunderestimate’ and for incontestable pearls of wisdom such as ‘the past is over’ and ‘when there’s more trade, there’s more commerce’. Sadly, it seems he can’t be credited with ‘to overexaggerate’, as Collins English Dictionary places peak use in the mid 1940s, but it’s one that he might have enjoyed using.

Few practised writers take tautology to Bush’s lengths, but some redundant formulations do occasionally slip in, and it’s easy to let them pass unnoticed. Here are some common ones that we encounter and that are worth looking out for. See whether you can spot why they’re tautological (answers below).

  1. The reason for the change is due to improved access to clean water.
  2. As the temperature increases, the rate speeds up.
  3. Remember to use terms such as, e.g. ‘onomatopoeia’, ‘simile’, ‘metaphor’, etc.
  4. Get back into your groups again and discuss your findings.
  5. The population increased to 1 million people in the early 1900s.
  6. Select a poem of your choice to summarise.
  7. Students take turns to pick a card each.
  8. Write a short summary of 250 words.
  9. Food prices are becoming unaffordable for people on low wages.
  10. Reduce the liquid down to a thick sauce by simmering for about 20 minutes.

Answers

  1. There are two expressions for introducing the cause of the change. Correct sentence: ‘The reason for the change is improved access to clean water.’ or ‘The change is due to improved access to clean water.’
  2. ‘Rate’ means ‘the speed at which something happens’. Correct sentence: ‘As the temperature increases, the rate increases.’
  3. ‘Such as’ already indicates that the list is not comprehensive. Correct sentence: ‘Remember to use terms such as ‘onomatopoeia’, ‘simile’ and ‘metaphor’.’
  4. ‘Back’ includes the idea of ‘again’. Correct sentence: ‘Get back into your groups and discuss your findings.’ or ‘Get into your groups again and discuss your findings.’
  5. ‘Population’ means ‘number of people’. Correct sentence: ‘The population increased to 1 million in the early 1900s.’
  6. ‘Selecting’ and ‘choosing’ are synonyms. Correct sentence: ‘Select a poem to summarise.’ If the idea is to make clear that students can choose any poem, not just one from a list provided by the teacher, then a better solution might be: ‘From the Internet or from an anthology, select a poem to summarise.’
  7. The singular ‘card’ and the fact that students are taking turns make ‘each’ redundant. Correct sentence: ‘Students take turns to pick a card.’
  8. There’s no need for a value judgement on the length when the exact length is specified. Correct sentence: ‘Write a summary of 250 words.’ or ‘Write a short summary.’
  9. People buy food, not prices. Correct sentence: ‘Food is becoming unaffordable for people on low wages.’
  10. ‘Reduce’ includes the idea of ‘down’. Correct sentence: ‘Reduce the liquid to a thick sauce by simmering for about 20 minutes.’

Whether his redundant expressions were accidental or intentional, tautology is nothing new, and George W keeps eminent company. He might take heart, or even inspiration, from the fact that the Bible contains a much-loved tautology that is read out in churches around the world every Christmas and sung to Handel’s unforgettable music: ‘For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace’. On that note, I wish you a very merry festive season!



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