The Department of Redundancy Department, Part 1: Tautology
This week, I marked an essay submitted by one of our SAT Essay Prep Workshop students. It contained this passage (italics mine):
People are not satisfied or do not appreciate what they have if there is no cost or effort involved. Every accomplishment or every achievement is only obtained at a price. An entertainer, movie star, or comedian who receives an honorary degree does not likely value his degree as much as the student who spent four to eight years working hard trying to earn or attain that degree.
The highlighted portions are examples of redundancy — an issue common to student writers, though not normally as pervasive a problem as you see here. In each case I’ve noted, the writer includes two virtually synonymous words or phrases connected by a conjunction. There is no significant difference, for example, between earn and attain. They have different connotations, certainly, but it is for the writer to determine which of the two best expresses his meaning. Using them both only causes confusion.
You might argue that there is a difference between “not being satisfied” and “not appreciating,” but in the context of the paper, they make essentially the same point. If the writer meant them to be distinct actions, it wouldn’t be redundant, but the sentence is then unnecessarily confusing and trying to say more that it should.
I don’t mean to nit-pick. An occasional redundant expression might be used intentionally to emphasize a point or for rhetorical flourish. But the number of redundancies in this example is evidence that the student has simply fallen into a bad habit.
There are essentially two kinds of redundancies in writing: tautology and pleonasm. Tautology is what you see above — a repetition of the same idea in different words. A common example is “the little, tiny man.”
I hate to pick on him again, but a certain radio talk-show host often falls into this habit. As always, I am willing to excuse speakers more readily than writers, but I wish someone would help the poor man understand that stringing synonyms together does not make ones argument more convincing:
I am totally convinced and firmly believe that this country must aggressively attack and do battle with all foes, opponents, and enemies abroad.
This problem must be faced and confronted before it destroys, demolishes, and decimates our freedoms and liberties.*
One of my favorite tautologies is the following, from another student paper:
By paying attention and listening to the professor, I am focusing on what is being said.
When the student asked my opinion of the paper I asked him if there was a difference between paying attention, listening to the professor, and focusing on what is being said. He sheepishly said, “No.”
I said, “So, basically, what you are saying here is, By paying attention and paying attention, I am paying attention.”
He knew I was teasing, laughed with me, and got the point.
Watch for tautologies in your writing or in the writing of your students. Students seeking to impress readers with their vocabulary tend to be most susceptible.
If you have any humorous examples of tautologies, I’d love to read them. Use the comment section below.
*These examples are not actual quotes. I made them up, but based them on sentences I really heard.