Tautology and Redundancy in Business Writing

by Craig Shrives

What Is Tautology and Redundancy?

Business texts must be as precise and concise as possible. To achieve this, avoid not only unnecessary detail but also redundancy and tautology.

Redundancy. Redundancy refers to words that don't add anything. For example:
  • The font that Janet liked is unavailable.
  • We need to try the new system out.
If you can delete words with no loss of meaning, then those words are redundant ones. Often in business writing, redundant words are words that re-explain an idea.

Tautology. Tautology refers to a term that expresses an idea twice. For example:
  • She commutes back and forth to London.
  • (The term "back and forth" is redundant because it is implicit in the word "commutes.")

Keep Your Texts As Precise As Possible

Every time you use a word that adds nothing to your message, you lose a tiny bit of good will and credibility. Eventually, you become "The Waffler" and that isn't a cool Batman villain. It's a bad thing. Remember this: Unless you are the boss, no one really cares what you've got to say, and they're not going to spend much time reading your correspondence (especially if it's long). You must strive to get your message across in as few words as possible.
"The length of your letter is directly proportional to the speed of your readers' skim-reading."
(BBC Monitoring editor Ashley Brewer)
All that said, avoiding tautology and redundancy is not really about saving your readers' time. It's more about showcasing your proficiency with words. If you can write sentences with no redundant words, your writing prowess becomes apparent even to those who don't know what redundant words are. So, it's more about your credibility.

Some words in a sentence add nothing to the meaning, and these are the ones you should look to eliminate. You could do this as you're going along, but that might stifle your creativity and flow. In my experience, redundant words are best removed as part of the proofreading process. Look at these two sentences:

Starting version:

"Given a choice between two theories, take the one that is funnier."

Proofread version:

"Given a choice between two theories, take the funnier one."

Yes, well chuffed. I've managed to delete "which is" without any loss of meaning. I'm really pleased. The sentence flows much better too, which is an added bonus!

Hang on. I just said "added bonus!" Do I really need the word "added"?

"Bonus" usually means "a payment or gift added to what is usual or expected." So, actually, there's no need for me to use "added." The notion of "added" is already included in the word "bonus." Therefore, "added" can be deleted without any loss of meaning. Bonus! Here are a few common terms with deletable words:
  • Armed gunman
  • Ask the question
  • Attach together
  • Commute back and forth
  • Depreciate in value
  • Evolve over time
  • Frozen ice
  • New innovation
  • Past experience
  • Temper tantrum
  • Three-way love triangle
  • Unintentional mistake
  • Unexpected surprise
  • Warn in advance
All the crossed-out words are redundant.

Sometimes, redundant words are words that are just not needed.

Fetch the book which is by the fire.

However, sometimes, words are redundant because they say the same thing as something you've already said. When this happens, the redundant words are said to be tautological. The term with the idea expressed twice is called a tautology. For example:
  • He left at 3 a.m. in the morning.
  • (This is a tautology because "a.m." means "in the morning.")
  • In our assessment, we think he is alive.
  • ("In our assessment" means "we think.")
Be careful though. Something that looks like tautology might not be:
  • Present a short summary.
  • (Argument: Summaries are always short. Delete short. Counter-argument: Are they? You could have a 5-page summary. Is that short?)
  • She died from a fatal dose of heroin.
  • (Argument: Of course it was a fatal dose. That's why she died. Counter-argument: She could have died from a non-fatal dose of heroin, i.e., it wouldn't have killed most people.)
  • Enter your PIN number in the ATM machine.
  • (Argument: PIN means Personal Identification Number. You don't need to repeat the word number. ATM means Automated Teller Machine. You don't need to repeat the word machine. Counter-argument: True, but don't you think PIN and ATM have become words in their own right? In the interest of clarity, it's best to leave the redundancy in.)
So, sometimes, you might have a debate on your hands about whether words are redundant or not. In all cases, your striving for clarity must trump your efforts to avoid redundancy. (And, that's why I left "or not" in "redundant or not" in the first sentence of this paragraph.)

This next point is important. Redundant words aren't just the odd word here and there (as in the common terms above). Often, redundant words are whole sentences or paragraphs that repeat something you've already said. Get 'em deleted. Keep the "The Waffler" at bay.
"The best writing is precise and concise."

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