Are Tautologies Making Your Writing Less Taut?
A tautology is the saying of the same thing twice over in different words.
In this week's tip, I want to explore their use and a more general theme of redundant or repetititious information.
As a teacher, I instinctively use tautologies to increase students' understanding by using unfamiliar words and phrases alongside a more common usage, or to remind them of prior learning.
An example from a biology lesson might be to say:
Aerobic respiration, the release of energy through reaction with oxygen, takes place in the mitochondria.
Here I am subtly reminding learners that aerobic respiration uses oxygen, in contrast to anaerobic respiration which doesn't require oxygen. They have already been taught the difference between aerobic and anaerobic respiration lower down the school, but some may have forgotten.
Or I might say:
Wires with a high resistance decrease the electrical current and transfer the electrical energy to thermal energy. So the wires become hot as the rate of flow of electrons decreases.
This reminds learners that thermal energy means heat energy and that current is the rate of flow of electrons.
But as a writer, it's a habit that I have worked hard to break.
There are a number of reasons why the use of tautologies should be reduced.
Wordcount! The bane of many writers. Tautologies take up additional words - which is wasteful when you want to decrease the number of words.Take this example:
He was a six-foot-five-inch, giant of a man, who towered over normal folks.
In this sentence, we tell the reader that the character is bigger than normal in three different ways. It takes up 13 words (counting hyphenated phrases as one word). Do we need that level of redundancy?
At six-feet-five-inches he towered over everybody else. (7 words)
He was a six-feet-five-inch giant of a man. (8 words)
He was a six-feet-five-inch giant. (5 words) - we've already told the reader he was a man by using 'he'.
It slows the pace. As explored previously (Tip #116), using fewer words means that text is read more quickly. This can help increase the pace of a scene. Avoiding tautologies can aid in this.
It's a waste of synonyms! As writers, we are taught from an early age to try and avoid repetition. Using the same word over and over in a couple of paragraphs can make prose look simplistic and childish. This is not always easy, and whilst a good thesaurus helps, you can find yourself using ever more obscure words since you've already used the most common ones. Tautologies, by definition, use twice as many adjectives to describe a scene as you need, thus reducing the number left.
Imagine trying to describe blood flowing out of a person. You might describe the blood as red. A synonym for red may be crimson. What then? Scarlet?
The red blood flowed out of the wound, turning the carpet crimson. At the sight of the scarlet liquid, Johnny felt light-headed. (22 words)
Well we know that human blood is red, so we don't need to tell the reader this. We also know what it is going to do to the carpet. That just leaves its affect on Johnny.
The blood flowed out of the wound, soaking the carpet. At the sight of the red liquid, Johnny felt light-headed. (20 words)
Why not go further?
The blood flowed out of the wound, soaking the carpet. The sight made Johnny feel light-headed. (16 words)
After all, we know that blood is a liquid, and even if the reader had forgotten we've reminded them by saying it flowed.
The counter argument:
The use of tautologies isn't always bad. For example, in the previous example, we are making the assumption that the reader knows that blood is red, and a liquid. That's not unreasonable. But how far can you take that? Do you need to subtly remind readers of the meaning of unfamiliar phrases, or of facts that they need to fully appreciate what is happening?
Remember, hopefully your books will be read by a wide range of people. Some will devour crime novels at a terrifying pace, and be fully immersed in the genre. Others might rarely pick up a crime novel, and so be new to the terminology. Not all of your readers may be from your country, so might not be familiar with policing structures or common terms. English might be an additional language.
Imagine trying to understand what this means if you aren't a native English speaker, or familiar with British policing.
"I think you're talking nonsense," said PC Smith.
"Well you're wrong," countered CI Jones, his knuckles whitening.
The rest of the room fell silent; nobody had ever seen such an exchange in public before.
This should be a tense scene, and readers should appreciate the risk that PC Smith is taking. But this assumes that your reader knows 1) That PC is the rank Police Constable, not the character's initials, and CI is Chief Inspector. 2) That the police is a hierarchical organisation where more senior officers are spoken to politely at the very least and 3) that a Chief Inspector significantly outranks a Constable.
This is where the judicious use of a tautology or two can make this explicit.
"I think you're talking nonsense, Chief Inspector," said PC Smith.
"Well you're wrong, Constable," countered CI Jones, his knuckles whitening.
The rest of the room fell silent; nobody had ever seen such an exchange in public before. A Constable openly disagreeing with a senior officer was unheard of.
Although a little clunky (forgive me, it's late and I made this up on the fly!), this furnishes the facts necessary for readers to recognise the significance of this exchange.
Another exception. Description: Sometimes, it isn't all about the pace. Even the most thrilling of thrillers needs a little time to breathe, and certain scenes may benefit from richer description. Sometimes a beautiful description may involve tautologies. In my opinion, that's fine. As long as the tautologies are there to serve a purpose, rather than a lack of editing or out of habit, then I say use them.
A final exception. Dialogue: Most people, especially when they are relaxed, aren't the most efficient of speakers. Natural speech is littered with repetition and tautologies. Allowing for the caveat that writers rarely render speech exactly, the use of tautologies to make speech sound authentic is OK in my book.
What do you think about tautologies and repetition? Should they be avoided at all costs, or can they be used sparingly, in a controlled manner (yes that is a tautology).
As always, feel free to share your thoughts here or on social media.
All the best,
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Paul Gitsham is the writer of the DCI Warren Jones series.
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