The Unexpected Surprise (& other repetitive tautologies …)


Have you ever wondered why we say things like ‘widow woman’, ‘baby kitten’, and ‘new invention’? Isn’t it obvious that a widow is a woman, that a kitten is by definition a baby (cat), and that an invention must be new?

Most people would probably agree, yet it’s surprising how commonly this sort of repetition occurs in daily English usage.

For example, the sports news might celebrate the track cyclist whose ‘first debut’ was such an ‘unexpected surprise’ as she ‘sped quickly’ through the pack, ‘led from the front’, and surely has a ‘big future ahead of her’.

An expression that needlessly restates its meaning like this is called a tautology. And once your attention is drawn to them, you’ll see and hear them everywhere.

At work, for instance, ‘each individual one of you’ might be encouraged to ‘work cooperatively together’ so as not to ‘return back’ to last month’s ‘downward decline’ in ‘overseas exports’ figures, and to aim instead for ‘an improvement for the better’.

We might hear a cinema critic describe ‘the narrative of the story’ and how the ‘terrible tragedy’ the movie depicts, as well as the ‘final outcome’, are based on ‘true facts’. And in the critic’s ‘personal opinion’, we can all ‘look forward with anticipation’ to the sequel.

Finally, nature programs might show animal habitats on ‘islands surrounded by water’, and describe characteristic behaviour as they ‘forage for food’ and seek shelter that’s ‘adequate enough’, ever alert to the presence of their snake predators whose ‘neurotoxic venom would poison their nervous system’.

I’ve noticed a range of reactions to tautologies. They infuriate linguistic purists (like my dad) and mildly amuse more laid back observers, such as a friend who maintains a years-old collection of tautologies in a series of little notebooks.

Avoid needless repetition

It’s helpful to consider your own awareness of tautologies. Many of us use language so automatically that we may not be conscious of picking up habits that don’t serve the purpose of our communication.

This is definitely worth reflection if you regularly communicate with clients or potential clients. It’s likely that there’s limited space or time for you to connect with someone and let them know about how your business can help them. You’ll probably increase your credibility by not repeating yourself needlessly.

Do you have a favourite tautology that makes you laugh or drives you nuts? Or are there other quirky expressions that catch your attention? I’d love to read about them.

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