Definition of Tautology

Tautology is a literary device used by writers to say something more than once, using the same words or synonymous words. The intent of this device is to emphasize a point or idea for an audience or reader. Depending on the effectiveness of tautology in a written work, it can be seen as redundant and needless repetition, or it can be considered poetic license.

The word tautology is from the Greek word tauto, meaning “same,” and Logos, meaning “word or idea.” This literary device can refer to a phrase, sentence, or even paragraph that reiterates the same idea using different words or repeats the meaning, despite appearing to provide new context or information. When used effectively, tautology can provide emphasis or clarity, or even create ambiguity that is intentional.

Edgar Allan Poe often utilized tautology in his poetry. For example, this literary device is present in the final stanza of his poemAnnabel Lee”:

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea—
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

Poe uses tautology in this stanza to emphasize the beauty of Annabel Lee and the repeated actions of the poet in thinking of and being reminded of her through nature and his own subconscious. Poe’s most effective use of tautology in this stanza is by using the words “sepulchre” and “tomb” in the final two lines. These are synonyms for a place of interment, reflecting the literal interred state of Annabel Lee. However, these repeated synonyms also reflect the interment of the poet’s love and the cycle of mourning he experiences each night from which he cannot escape. Therefore, neither the poet nor Annabel Lee can escape the figurative and literal sepulchre/tomb, emphasizing both symbolic and actual death for them both.

Common Examples of Tautology in Everyday Speech

Tautology can be found in many phrases that people frequently use, though most are unaware of the predominantly needless repetition of words or phrases. Here are some common examples of tautology in everyday speech:

  • PIN number (personal identification number number)
  • over-exaggerate
  • free gift
  • return back
  • more and more
  • close proximity
  • it is what it is
  • repeat again
  • hot water heater
  • VIN number (vehicle identification number number)
  • necessary requirement
  • frozen ice
  • over and over
  • personal opinion
  • share and share alike
  • minute to minute
  • six in one, half-dozen the other
  • refer back

Examples of Uses for Tautology

Tautology is a literary device that is used in some instances by writers, poets, lyricists, speech writers, debaters, and public speakers. Depending on the intended effect for the reader or audience, there are strategic reasons to incorporate tautology in a written work. Here are some examples of uses for tautology:

  • as a poetic device–to grab the reader’s attention and/or leave a strong, memorable impression
  • to satirize or mock a subject
  • if language is insufficient or limited
  • to emphasize the significance of a subject
  • to create ambiguity or provoke thought for readers/audience

Writing Tautology

Tautology is a phrase or expression that states the same thing more than once, often in a different way. Most professional writers, when considering the use of tautology as a literary device, do so sparingly if at all. This is due to the perception that tautology, in many cases, is the result of inexperienced or unskilled writing. Tautology can appear redundant, unclear, repetitious, and/or monotonous. This can reflect poorly on writers by making them seem unprepared or incompetent. In general, readers appreciate writing that is concise and succinct with straightforward meaning.

However, some writers effectively utilize tautology to underscore the significance of their subject and/or meaning. This can resonate with readers and/or audience members and cause them to analyze the subject on a deeper level. However, most writers do not typically or frequently rely on tautology as a literary device in order to avoid appearing repetitious or inexperienced.

Examples of Tautology in Literature

Though tautology can be ineffective in some written works, appearing to add unnecessary words or information, there are many works of literature in which this literary device is successfully used to focus a reader’s attention or add substance and significance to the meaning of the work. Here are some examples of effective tautology in lterature:

Example 1: Hamlet (William Shakespeare)

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.

Shakespeare often utilized tautology as a literary device to emphasize certain elements in his plays. In this famous soliloquy of Hamlet, Shakespeare effectively uses tautology as a means for Hamlet’s character to reveal his thoughts in a way that mirrors an internal dialogue. Hamlet repeats himself in attempting to reason the merits of “to be” or “not to be” in terms of continuing to live or ending his life. This tautology persists throughout the monologue as Hamlet attempts to logically arrive at an “answer” to his question. Shakespeare repeats the word “sleep” as a symbol of both dying and living, as well as “dreams” to represent the known heartache and pain of living compared to the unknown pain of death.

This tautology not only allows Hamlet to express his doubts and attempts at reason, but it also allows the reader/audience to contemplate the same repetition of questions and answers. Shakespeare creates a sense of universality, as a result, regarding the human conflict in deciding to embrace life or death at any given moment–and the cyclical tension between what is known and unknown.

Example 2: One Art (Elizabeth Bishop)

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like disaster.

In her poem, Bishop relies on tautology to emphasize the various forms of loss and to reinforce the “art” of practice through repetition. In addition, Bishop repeats the words “master” and “disaster” to create a repetitive, circular, internal dialogue for the poet regarding the consequences of loss and the fact that it is an inevitable human condition that cannot be mastered no matter how much it is practiced. This literary use of tautology is effective for the reader as the poem escalates the sense of loss and its consequences so that the forced admission of “disaster” in the final line has both a finality and inevitability to it.

Example 3: To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)

Now, gentlemen, in this country, our courts are the great levelers. In our courts, all men are created equal. I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system – that’s no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality! Now I am confident that you gentlemen will review, without passion, the evidence that you have heard, come to a decision and restore this man to his family. In the name of GOD, do your duty. In the name of God, believe… Tom Robinson.

This famous speech at the end of Tom Robinson’s trial in Lee’s novel features the character Atticus’s use of tautology to emphasize the innocence of his client and appeal to an ultimate need for justice among the jurors. Atticus invokes the phrase “In the name of God” twice as a means of underscoring to the jurors that Tom Robinson’s very life is in their hands. This reflects not only Atticus’s power in rhetorical and oratory skills, but it also reveals that he understands that his statements regarding the integrity of the American court system to bring about equality is, in fact, an ideal and not reality.

Atticus knows that the presentation of Tom Robinson’s innocence through evidence alone is not enough, even in a court of law, to protect his innocence as a black man. As a result, Atticus relies on tautology as a device to implore the men on the jury to consider their duty in terms of their faith in God as well as their responsibility as jurors in a court of law. This tautology is a reminder to the reader as well of the equality of men in terms of God’s creations.