Tautology Wiki


"THIS IS LIKE DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN" - Eight Types of Tautology. Subject: Rhetoric (Terminology) Definition (Logic) (Terminology) Author: Moore, Michael Pub Date: 06/22/2001 Publication: Name: ETC.: A Review of General Semantics Publisher: Institute of General Semantics Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Languages and linguistics Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2001 Institute of General Semantics ISSN: 0014-164X Issue: Date: Summer, 2001 Source Volume: 58 Source Issue: 2 Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

Accession Number: 78800753 Full Text: MICHAEL MOORE [*]

THOUGH INTRODUCED into propositional calculus at the end of the 19th century by the American logician Charles Peirce, tautology (literally "the same word") had its place among the better-known errors of rhetoric as early as the 4th century. Aelius Donatus (Chase, 1926), a famous Latin grammarian, listed it, inter alia, alongside cacemphaton (vulgar utterance) and barbarism: "Tautology is a faulty repetition of phrases, such as 'me, myself and I'." Current dictionary definitions leave it unclear whether repeated words or repeated ideas constitute a tautology, and whether mere repetition suffices. Three dictionary definitions illustrate this confusion:

Merriam Webster Dictionary: "Needless or meaningless repetition in close succession of an idea, statement, or word."

Concise Oxford Dictionary: "Saying the same thing twice over in different words."

Oxford English Dictionary (OED): "A repetition of the same statement; the repetition (esp. in the immediate context) of the same word or phrase, or of the same idea or statement in other words."

The idea of repetition appears in each of these definitions. A consideration of the following terms, related to tautology, shows that such repetition comes in many different forms.

Antanaclasis: "The same word is repeated in a different, if not a contrary signification" (OED). For example: "And that's that!" (probably "the most succinct antanaclastic tautology in the English language," according to States, 2000), or "who's who."

Paronomasia: "A play upon words in which the same word is used in different senses or words similar in sound are set in opposition so as to give antithetical force" (Webster). For example: "Thou art Peter [rock], and upon this rock I shall build my church" (Matthew 16: 18; though this example worked better in Greek). We find a modern example of such punning in Stein (1922/1993, p.182): "So great so great Emily! Sew grate sew grate Emily." [1]

Pleonasm: "Iteration or repetition in speaking or in writing, the use of more words than those necessary; the coincident use of a word and its substitute" (Webster). Webster's definition sounds like a good example of pleonasm

Redundancy: "The part of a communication that can be eliminated without loss of essential information" (Webster). This definition lacks redundancy.

In the following I won't attempt to make clear distinctions among tautologies and their termes voisins; possibly some of the examples I use belong to one of the above.

In contrast with its somewhat fuzzy literary meaning, in logic a tautological statement consists of one that we cannot deny without inconsistency. Formally, the expression p v p (read "p or not-p") embodies a tautology, for in a truth table both possible combinations of p with p (T and F, or F and T) result in a true statement (a "formal truth" in Copi, 1953, p.247; see also Fearnside & Holther, 1959, pp. 135-137 for their discussion of "logical truth," and its overlap with tautology). A few quotes and paraphrases from Wittgenstein ("who venerated tautology," says Borsodi, 1967, p.58) will further characterize logical tautologies:

When "the proposition is true for all the truth-possibilities of the elementary propositions ... we say that the truth-conditions are tautological" (1922, 4.46).

"Tautology: if p then p, and if q then q" (5.101).

"A tautology ... says nothing" (5.142).

"Tautology is that which is shared by all propositions, which have nothing in common with one another ... Tautology is the substanceless center of the propositions" (5.143).

"The propositions of logic are tautologies. The propositions of logic therefore say nothing" (6.1; 6.11).

Borsodi (1967) echoes Wittgenstein's above sentiments when he announces: "Every truth is the statement of a tautology" (p.57). Borsodi (also Burke, 1941, p.448; Fearnside & Holther, 1959, p.137; Thiher, 1997, p.15) leads us to understand that according to the rules of logic, good definitions constitute tautologies. Here the definitional difficulty confronts us again: On the one hand, if we define tautology as "needless or meaningless repetition" (see the above definition by the Webster dictionary, as well as the quote from Donatus), then definitions have nothing to do with tautologies. if, on the other hand, any repetition of an idea, in the same or different words suffices (as in the above Oxford definitions), then definitions certainly illustrate tautologies. Literati who regard tautologies as errors belong to the former camp; logicians, for whom tautologies have a neutral character, have taken the latter position.

Having touched upon the history of tautology and its definitions, I shall now turn to the question of motivation. First I must note that the rules of a particular language, as well as linguistic circumstances, may force, permit, or discourage redundancy. For us to regard a particular instance as a tautology, the source must have had freedom to use the redundant expression (see Kedar-Kopfstein, 1993). in spite of their form, we need not consider any of the following phrases as tautological, for in each of them the repeated words have a non-redundant function: [2]

"It ain't over till it's over" (attributed to Yogi Berra).

"And a woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke" (Kipling, 1886/1941, The Betrothed).

"The three things needed to successfully wage war are money, money, and money" (attributed to the 17th century Austrian field marshal Raimondo Montecuccoli).

"What we cannot think, that we cannot think" (Wittgenstein, 1922, 5.61; the same person who gave us the formal, logical definitions of tautology above).

"To-morrow, and to-morrow and to-morrow,! Creeps in this petty pace from day to day ..." (Macbeth V: v). [3]

"Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose" (Sacred Emily in Stein, 1922/1993. In her introduction Pondrom refers to this as Stein's "signature tautology," p.xliv).

"Rose is Rose" (Pat Brady's comic strip).

"Enough is enough" (which has given rise, inter alia, to the name of the 2000 British rock group Enuff Znuff).

"I know what's what"; "Business is business"; "A promise is a promise."

The same holds for the following everyday expressions. Their lack of redundancy derives from the total effect of each utterance, which has an entirely different meaning from that of its single constituents:

now now; well well well; dear dear; come come; so so; a no-no.

What reasons may the sources have for expressing themselves redundantly? I find several non-exclusive explanations. [4] The lack of exclusiveness among the following derives from several causes, among them our inability to enter the speaker's mind, and the multi-determination lying behind every behavior.

1. Inadequacies of Language

Cherry (1977) suggests that the need for redundancy arises out of "the inadequacies of language itself. This latter requires that we expand our phrases and sentences until we are content that we have 'conveyed our meaning'" (p.l20). Jespersen (1917) made a similar statement regarding the widespread use of the logically unnecessary double negation in languages which use comparatively small negative elements: "The insignificance of these elements makes it desirable to multiply them so as to prevent their being overlooked" (p.72; see Moore, 1992, as well as Wustmann, 1891/1966). Precisely in this spirit, in several cases formally negative prefixes have an intensive rather than a negative denotation:

disannul, dissever, misdoubt, unravel, unthaw, irregardless.

One can find numerous literary examples of double negation, especially in the reporting of direct speech:

"We don't never let him get off the place" (Faulkner, 1929/1956, p.3).

"It wasn't none of my car, I tell you!" (Faulkner, 1932/1959, p.70).

The idea of redundancy as emphasis provides a variation on Cherry's previous notion. We find here two related mechanisms. In the first, the source seems to believe that simple repetition of a message increases the chance of its reception. In the second device, the source indicates the intensity of the message by repeating it several times. [5] (Consider the effect of knocking on a door several times.) The first two of the following biblical examples appear in Kedar-Kopfstein (1993, p.387):

"Treason, treason" (2 Kings 11:14; structurally similar to current "Help! Help!").

"Holy, holy, holy" (Isaiah 6:3; the "Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus" of the Catholic Mass).

"O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!" (2 Samuel 19: 1; compare, several analyses of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! in Muhlenfeld, 1984).

In both poetry and everyday expressions this emphatic function often reveals itself:

"... that untravelled world, whose margin fades/ For ever and for ever when I move." (Tennyson, Ulysses, 19).

"To Carthage then I came/ Burning burning burning burning" (T. S. Eliot, The Wasteland).

"I'm a good girl, I am" (Liza in Shaw's Pygmalion, II).

"The plane, the plane!" (In the TV series Fantasy Island).

"Burn, baby, burn" (inner-city war cry); Run Lola, Run (movie title).

easy, easy; faster, faster!; hear, hear!; dumb-dumb.

One can achieve emphasis also by using different words that express the same idea:

"I'm willing to tell you. I'm wanting to tell you. I'm waiting to tell you." (Doolittle in Shaw's Pygmalion, II; Higgins calls this a "natural gift of rhetoric").

2. Intended Vagueness

While in the above examples tautology served to strengthen an utterance, a source may also use tautologies to achieve vagueness. Political demagoguery falls into this category: "... something about politics attracts the tautology .... The tautology, strategically, would be a way of saying something without actually saying much" (States, 1998). Such a strategy has a strong element of populism: One cannot tautologize to an elite audience. Not so in Kedar-Kopfstein's (1993, 3.5) biblical examples, in which the author uses tautological paronomasia because of "his inability or unwillingness to describe the matter at hand exactly." I suggest that the following illustrates such a case of intentional mystification (Armstrong, 1993, p.21, concurs):

"I am that I am" (Exodus 3:14).

Many Bible translations differ from this faithful rendition by the King James' version; e.g. the Knox translation: "I am the God who IS" (sic), or the Greek Septuagint's "I am the being." Both such translators and numerous religious exegetes show embarrassment vis a vis the blatant tautology of the Hebrew original, and alter it.

Tautologies do not stand alone as a method for saying nothing; cliches, truisms and platitudes serve a similar purpose, so does practically any verbosity. Nietzsche commented on the dialectics of revealing for the purpose of concealing: "Talking much about oneself can also be a means to conceal oneself' (1886/1966, Epigram # 169, p.92; see also Bialik, 191511950). I shall also mention in this context the famous Dr. Fox effect, or "[T]he overriding influence of instructor expressiveness on students' evaluation of college and university teaching" (Marsh, 1987; the original Dr. Fox, a professional actor, delivered a contentless lecture to an audience of educators and graduate students who subsequently rated him very favorably; see Naftulin, Ware & Donnelly, 1973).

3. Derision

A further possibility for the intentional use of tautology involves neither strengthening or weakening, but rather rests on the derision inherent in it. (Compare, Shapira, 1988, for both playful and pejorative aspects in syllabic redoubling.) In such cases the source mocks its audience, perhaps assuming that the latter does not immediately grasp the repetitiousness of the message. Consider, for instance, the following quotations from Shakespeare. In the first one Marc Antony defines the crocodile to drunken Lepidus:

"It is shaped, sir, like itself; and it is as broad as it hath breadth; it is just so high as it is, and moves with its own organs; it lives by that which nourisheth it; and, the elements once out of it, it transmigrates." Lepidus: "What color is it of?" Antony: "Of its own color, too .... And the tears of it are wet." (Antony & Cleopatra, II: vii).

"Polonious: What do you read, my lord? / Hamlet: Words, words, words" (Hamlet, II: ii).

"Words, words, mere words, no matter from the heart" (Troilus and Cressida, V: iii. -- Compare, "Parole, Parole, Parole" as a song title, as well as a recent Italian movie).

States (2000) considers a whole category of jokes as based on the principle of hidden tautology: Why did the chicken cross the road?; Why did they bury the Scotchman on the hill?; What has four wheels and flies? etc. He then goes on to say: "[T]echnically, these aren't tautologies because there is nothing redundant about them; rather, they flirt with the redundancy involved in tautology in order to create a gap ..."

4. Poetic Device

I shall pool here several types of tautology in which the technical aspects of repetition dominate: imitation, ornamentation, and figures of speech. All of these may appear both in everyday language and as a poetic device:

"Keeping time, time, time,/In a sort of Runic rhyme ... /From the bells, bells, bells, bells (Poe, The Bells).

"Twit twit twit/ Jug jug jug jug jug jug" (T. S. Eliot, The Wasteland).

"This is the way the world ends/ This is the way the world ends/ This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper" (T. S. Eliot, "The Hollow Men").

Bang bang, you're dead; knock knock, who's there?; bye bye; gobble gobble; tap tap; boing-boing; tom-tom drum; pooh-pooh; blah blah. [6]

To "vow a vow" (Numbers 30: 2,3); "Joseph dreamed a dream" (Genesis 37: 5. -- Compare, "dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before," in Poe, "The Raven"); he "smiled a wicked smile."

Yet even these seemingly technical redundancies may have additional depth. The editors of an anthology (Baym & al., 1985, p.988) explain Gertrude Stein's sentence "Will you be well will you be well": "Repetition of similar-sounding words directs attention away from meaning and toward sound." Perloff (1988, p.102) adds, also with regard to Gertrude Stein's style: "Verbal and phrasal repetition, in this context, is neither ornamental nor, as for many poets, a form of intensification. Rather, repetition generates meaning."

5. Psychological Significance

Unlike the often artistic motivation inherent in the previous type of redundancy, the following examples have a psychological significance. In this type of repetition, speakers indicate the acceptance of their fate:

"If I perish, I perish." (Esther 4:15)

"If I be bereaved (of my children), I am bereaved." (Genesis 43:14)

A Doris Day song contributes a more modern version of such acceptance:

"Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be."

The following expressions carry a similar atmosphere of resignation, of unwillingness to fight destiny:

"But men are men; the best sometimes forget." (Othello, II: iii)

"Boys will be boys"; "Children will be children."

"A man has got to do what a man has got to do."

In all of the previous cases, someone puts tautologies to his or her use, in order to make a point, or to gain ascendance over the listeners. Now we shall turn the tables, and look at some cases in which the audience seems to hold the upper hand.

6. Critical Audience

In the following, a critical audience accuses the source of having (perhaps unintentionally) committed a tautology. Thus creationists have claimed that the Darwinian phrase "survival of the fittest" involves a tautology, in effect saying that "survivors survive." (Evolutionary theorists have repeatedly rebutted this claim.) In a similar vein, the Encyclopedia Britannica describes that stock sentence of many books on logic, "All men are rational," as tautological: "The statement cannot but be true because it asserts every possible state of affairs: it is true whichsoever of its constituents are true, and it is also true whichsoever are false." [7]

In a discussion of literary theories, Thiher (1997, p.16) mentions the difficulty of seeing if a statement or series of statements function as a tautology. In his analysis of several theories (Marxist, Freudian, constructivist etc.), he finds that these have tautological axioms, operating by the Humpty Dumpty principle: The belief that defining terms as one wants can offer knowledge. Thiher makes us aware of the danger inherent in this mode of thinking: "... tautologies are often hidden, and failure to recognize them can ... lead to rather grandiose claims about what one has discovered through pseudological exercises in thought" (p.32).

Another example both illustrates the complex process of unearthing a suspected tautology, and shows that deciding whether an utterance does or does not constitute a tautology may have important consequences. In a lengthy statement on marriage which serves as the Vatican's attack on so-called "de facto" unions, Cardinal Trujillo (2000, 11/10) claims that the "principle of justice would be violated if de facto unions were given a juridical treatment similar or equivalent to the family based on marriage." He then defines the principle of justice: "Treating equals equally, and what is different differently." In another context de Jasay (1999) makes it clear what this amounts to: "... 'treat like cases alike' is no more than a tautology for 'apply the rule'." According to Trujillo's definition, anyone who applies a rule (with the possible exception of decision making made on the basis of randomness), applies it justly. The missing element in this chain of thought, and the one that actually involves justice, conce rns the choice of variables defining equality and difference. As de Jasay (1999) writes, "Between the two extremes 'every case is like every other' and 'no case is like any other,' certain cases are like certain others if one variable is chosen as relevant for rulemaking, and other cases are like yet others if relevance is judged differently." (See below for a higher level of analysis of same vs. different.)

7. Inept Speakers

In contrast with the above difficulties of exposing suspected tautologies in complex texts, quite often redundancy reveals itself with ease. All of the following seem to originate in apparently inept speakers who are unaware of the impression their utterances make on attentive audiences. I must add, however, that audiences have no objective means to decide whether the sources indeed lack sophistication, or perhaps employ one of the other motivational explanations (especially intentional vagueness or mockery, as in #2 and #3, above) applies.

"The more people out of work, the higher the unemployment" (attributed to Calvin Coolidge).

"Wherever I have gone in this country I have found Americans" (attributed to Alf Landon).

"We're going to have the best-educated American people in the world" (attributed to Dan Quayle).

"A low voter turnout is an indication of fewer people going to the polls" (attributed to Dan Quayle).

"It isn't pollution that's harming the environment. It's the impurities in our air and water that are doing it" (attributed to Dan Quayle).

"If we don't succeed, we run the risk of failure" (attributed to Dan Quayle).

"This is like deja vu all over again" (attributed to Yogi Berra).

"You can observe a lot just by watchin'" (attributed to Yogi Berra).

"If you can't imitate him, don't copy him" (attributed to Yogi Berra).

8. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

I have saved for last the most disturbing explanation for redundant utterances: neurotic repetition. We find an extreme manifestation of such redundancy in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), one of the more severe anxieties. Repetition serves as a necessary ingredient of both obsession and compulsion. In the former recurrent and persistent thoughts, impulses or images occupy a person; in the latter repetitive behaviors or mental acts occur, such as praying, counting, repeating words silently. According to Sullivan (1956) obsessives often use language not as a means of communication but as a defense against anxiety. Repetition in these cases fills a neurotic need by preventing or reducing distress. [8]

Freud attributed great importance to "repetition compulsion" and described some of its manifestations in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920/1955). One of his interpreters regards the compulsion to repeat as the secret of the neurosis itself (Wollheim, 1971, p.211), for not only does it demonstrate the power of the repressed, but also provides evidence for the death instinct or the Nirvana principle, by virtue of its leading to the total draining of energy. A related phenomenon noted by Freud involves the "very frequent repetition of the same word in writing and copying -- 'perseverations'" (1901/1960, pp.128-129; compare, cataphasia or catalogia: prolonged repetition of meaningless words).

As I suggested when I set out to classify redundant expressions, my system lacks exclusiveness, so that occasionally a specific tautology may fall into several categories. By having added neurotic repetition as a possible motivation for redundancy, I have eroded the difference between the various types even further, for this psychological explanation may well lie behind many of the others.


"Tautology, like everything else, is a function of context ..." writes States (2000); "Depending on where you choose to stand on the scales of sameness and difference and pertness [sic] and wholeness, you could as well argue that there is no such thing as tautology or that the whole world itself is a tautology ..." Indeed, both claims have had considerable support. On the "no tautology" side we can bring no lesser an authority than Heraclitus. If, as he claimed, one cannot enter the same river twice, then no repetition ever fulfills the "needless or meaningless" part of tautologies' above quoted dictionary definition. [9] Contra this opinion stands King Solomon (traditionally considered as the author of Ecclesiastes): "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9). We can easily recognize the latter notion in several non-linear theories of history which claim that time is cyclic, reiterating the same sequence of events over and over again. Nietzsche, who rejected linear, teleological views of world development, developed and described such a theory in several of his works, having based it on one of his most celebrated ideas: eternal recurrence (see Cairns, 1962, pp.226-239). Writing about this idea of Nietzsche, one of his interpreters commented: "On this level of consideration, all events are ultimately the same ..." (Schacht, 1983, p.255).

Fortunately, we need not identify with either extreme position. Between a nihilistic sameness of everything and an overwhelming variety of informational input we can find a middle road: By regarding something as tautological, we effectively reduce diversity, smooth out "inessential" variation. Perhaps this led Thiher (1997) to claim that "[t]autologies, or definitions, are tools we use to bring order to the world and what we find in the world" (p.16).

Burke has summed up well the dialectics of this issue in his mock prayer to Logos, whose works he considers as "a Great Tautology" (Dialectician Hymn, 1941, pp.447-450): "... And may we have neither the mania of the One I Nor the delirium of the Many -- / But both the Union and the Diversity."

(*.) Dr. Michael Moore, a social psychologist, is an associate professor at the Department of Education in Science and Technology of the Technion -- Israel Institute of Technology.


(1.) Stein's work characteristically contains many instances of paronomasia; see especially the short story Miss Furr & Miss Skeene in Stein, 1922/1993, pp.17-22.

(2.) The following have different structures from those quoted. In spite of the repeated words, none of these contains a redundancy, either:

"Dowered with the hate of hate, the scorn of scorn,/ The love of love." (Tennyson, "The Poet").

"Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,/ Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe" (Exodus 21:24-25).

"Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust" (Book of Common Prayer).

"A dream within a dream" (Poe, poem of same title).

A man's man, a cop's cop, a gentleman's gentleman; compare, biblical "king of kings" (Ezekiel 26:7), "slave of slaves" (Genesis 9:25).

7th daughter of a 7th daughter, vis-a-vis, fifty-fifty.

From time to time, face to face, wall to wall, mouth to mouth, house to house, word for word, letter for letter, little by little, step by step, by the by, day by day.

(3.) Macbeth's response to the news of Lady Macbeth's death ends with the words: "Life ... is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing." Compare with Wittgenstein 5.142, quoted above.

(4.) Occasionally we also come across motivationless or dead tautologies. Thus "saltcellar" represents a compound redundancy (in other words, a tautology), for cellar derives from Latin sal, salt. "Forewarn" means to warn beforehand, as if one could warn otherwise. "Cherubims" and "behemoths" offer a somewhat similar picture, both ending in a redundant plural suffix. See also "El Camino Avenue" and "Avenue Road," for redundancy.

(5.) Shapira (1988) recognizes two opposing tendencies in the syllabic redoubling (itself a redundancy ...) that appears in many words: intensification vs. diminution. See also Ferguson (1964) for syllabic redoubling as a characteristic of baby-talk in several languages.

(6.) In French: blablabla. Webster's dictionary definition indicates blah-blah's especially apt character for the illustration of tautologies: "a derogatory comment on meaningless chatter, of imitative origin."

(7.) See also: "A person should always do his duty." If duty means what a person should do, then this sentence says that a person should do what a person should do.

(8.) A clinician need not diagnose OCD for anxiety-reducing repetition to occur. Magic formulae often contain instructions for repeating a spell 3, 7 or 9 times; the Jewish Day of Atonement service ends with the seven-fold reiteration of a short sentence; the use of the rosary involves the recitation of the same prayers scores of times.

(9.) His contemporaries already made fun of Heraclitus. Epicharmos of Kos, a comic writer of the school of Pythagoras, put the "same river" notion in the mouth of a debtor. The latter refused to pay: "How could he be liable, seeing he is not the same man that contracted the debt?" (in the entry on Heraclitus, included in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy).


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