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Every writer needs to maintain a high standard of grammar and have a good understanding of key components of writing. Keep yourself sharp by testing your knowledge…

What strikes you about the following passages?

  1. Until 3pm in the afternoon, the festival was running tightly accordingly to schedule, but at four o’clock some anarchists intent on trouble set fire to a stall, causing the panicked crowd to exit in a mass evacuation of the venue.
  2. After brave 11-year-old Emily Blake was seriously injured in a school bus crash in November 2009, she had to rediscover how to walk, talk and just exist again.
  3. Gymnastics first started as a men’s sport.
  4. You’ve given me the general gist of the situation and I am firmly convinced that I can identify the major crux of the issue.
  5. I’ve been analysing the players’ reactions to the big points to see mentally what’s going on upstairs.

 

A tautology is a phrase containing one or more superfluous words. To tighten up your prose, you must edit your writing to eliminate any redundant words.

The most common tautologies I have heard and seen are:

  • Continue on (and keep continuing going on)
  • Join together
  • Transfer across
  • Focus in on
  • Reduce down
  • Reflect back off
  • ATM machine
  • PIN number
  • A variety of different…
  • The reason why … is because… (my personal favourite)

If you use any of these phrases when you speak, chances are tautologies are creeping into your writing as well. Remember, sometimes less is more! Writing concisely will increase the pace (and therefore the readability) of your prose. In some cases, being aware of tautologies will lead you to choose a stronger verb or replace a cliché with a more compelling illustration of your own. If you find you’ve written ‘she yelled loudly’, replace it with ‘she bellowed’ or ‘she shrieked’ or ‘she yelled so loudly that her face reddened’.

Tautologies crop up when people forget the meaning of the words they are using. Take passage 1 as an example: to evacuate is to exit and anarchists are people defined by their intent to cause trouble! If you have used a tautology because you are concerned that your audience will not understand a word you have chosen, use a different word.

A verb beginning with re generally does not need to be emphasised with extra words. To remit is to send back, so the phrase ‘to remit back’ is tautological (just like ‘reverse back’, ‘repeat again’ and, in the example listed, ‘rediscover again’).

Similarly, be careful not to use unnecessary (or contradictory) qualifiers or adjectives. For example:

  • naturally talented
  • truly unique
  • past history
  • past experience
  • pre-planned
  • free gift
  • extra bonus

I read the other day that lawyers are particularly fond of tautologies (think of ‘null and void’ and ‘last will and testament’). They would defend their verbosity by arguing that more words are required to prevent ambiguity (thereby preventing arguments and loopholes), but it is worth keeping in mind that using more words often unnecessarily complicates things (like the phrase ‘associated with or in any way connected to’).

Tautologies offer no value to your writing. Rather than saying the same thing twice over in different words, use your judgement to decide how your message is best expressed.

The redundant words in the above passages are as follows:

  1. 3pm in the afternoon; Tightly according to schedule; anarchists intent on trouble; exit in a mass evacuation of (rephrase to ‘causing the crowd to scramble in a mass evacuation’)
  2. Rediscover again
  3. First started
  4. General gist; firmly convinced; major crux
  5. Mentally what’s going on upstairs

 

The original version of this article was published as ‘Frustrations of an English Pedant’ in The Australian Writer issue 375 (February–May 2012).

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