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In defense of tautology in English

Tautology or redundancy, often defined as “useless repetition,” is undeservedly demonized in English. Expressions like “adequate enough,” “free gift,” “HIV virus,” “PIN number,” etc. are routinely ridiculed. But as I’ve pointed out many times in previous columns, the stigmatization of tautology is a relatively recent phenomenon in the English language.

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Tautologies were an intrinsic feature of the English language, the same way that reduplications are core features of most African languages. (A reduplication is an intentional repetition of a word or the syllables of a word either for emphasis or for pluralization. Examples are “maza maza” in Hausa, “kia kia” in Yoruba, “gara gara” in Baatonum, “ngwa ngwa” in Igbo, which all mean “quickly.”)

Because tautologies used to be constitutive of the natural rhythm of the English language, the most respected writers in the language in past generations deployed all kinds of tautologies in their writings. William Shakespeare, for instance, used them copiously for emphasis and for stylistic effect. Some of his most famous tautologies are “most unkindest cut of all,” “more braver,” and “most boldest.”

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In Julius Caesar, the character called Antony calls the wound inflicted on him by his boson friend Brutus as the “most unkindest cut of all.” In The Tempest, Shakespeare wrote: “And his more braver daughter could control thee.” Again in Julius Caesar, he wrote: “With the most boldest and best hearts of Rome.”

By today’s standards, “most unkindest,” “more braver,” and “most boldest” would be considered uneducated English. Only children and non-native English speakers with inadequate proficiency in the language now use these kinds of constructions, which grammarians call errors of “double comparative” and “double superlative.”

If tautologies, including double comparatives and double superlatives, were socially and grammatically acceptable in the English language-and were used liberally by the greatest writers in the language-why are they stigmatized now? Why are tautologies, especially double comparatives and double superlatives, now considered ungainly?

Eighteenth-century Prescriptivism

The answer lies in the rise and flowering of what has come to be known as Standard English. The whole idea of “standard English” to “fix” the English language and make its usage norms uniform across social classes and regions started in the 17th century, but became mainstream in the 18th century, first in Britain and later in America. Ironically, most of the standard English enthusiasts of the time used the rules of Latin, a foreign, “colonial” language, to “fix” and standardize the English language.

The eighteenth-century grammarians who imposed on themselves the task to fix and standardize the English language arbitrarily marginalized some vernacular varieties of the language, privileged others, imposed the rules of Latin in some usage conventions, and made new whimsical rules using the resources of logic, as I will show shortly. Tautologies got the short end of the stick during this time.

One of the most influential prescriptivist grammar books of this era was Robert Lowth’s Short Introduction to English Grammar, which was published in 1762. In this book, Lowth introduced many of the grammatical prohibitions that endure to this day. Tautology was one of the usage norms he and others arbitrarily banned.

He also banned double negatives, such as “I don’t like nobody.” He used the rules of logic to point out that double negatives cancel each other to produce a positive, so that “I don’t like nobody” translates to “I like somebody.” But natural languages don’t always obey the laws of logic. English is probably the only language in the world where double negatives are frowned upon. 

In French, for instance, two negatives don’t make a positive; they make a stronger negative. For example, Je n’ai plus aucun argent in French literally translates in English as “I don’t have no money anymore,” but it actually means “I don’t have any money anymore.”

Shakespeare and his contemporaries used double negatives to lend vigor and emphasis to what they wrote. In Henry IV Part I, for instance, Shakespeare wrote: “Nor never could the noble Mortimer/Receive so many, and all willingly.” And in Richard III, he wrote: “You may deny that you were not the mean/Of my Lord Hastings’ late imprisonment.” If he lived now, he would most certainly have written, “You may deny that you were the mean/ Of my Lord Hastings’ late imprisonment.”

Interestingly, in spite of the vilification of double negatives by grammarians, it survives in nonstandard, low-prestige English varieties (such as Appalachian English in the United States, African-American Vernacular English also called Ebonics, vernacular southern US English, Cockney English in the east end of London, etc.) and in pop music.

Not Only Tautologies and Double Negatives

Other casualties of the arbitrary standardization efforts of the eighteenth-century grammarians are the ideas that prepositions shouldn’t end sentences and that split infinitives are bad. The grammarians who came up with these rules simply imposed the rules of Latin on English. On this, however, they weren’t as successful as they were with the previous rules.

In the natural flow of the English language, prepositions end sentences, but in Latin, they don’t. So eighteenth-century grammarians said the rules of Latin must be imposed on English. Where people used to say, “She is the one I gave the book to,” for example, eighteenth-century grammarians said “She is the one to whom I gave the book” should be preferred.

As I wrote in my book, the “no-preposition-at-the-end-of-a-sentence” rule is not only counter-intuitive and senseless; it is also antithetical to the natural rhythm of the English language. How do you, for instance, avoid ending with a preposition in the following sentences: “I don’t know what she is talking ABOUT” (who says, “I don’t know about what she is talking”?); “What does she look LIKE?” (who says, “What like does she look?”), “The details have been attended TO” (who says, “The details attended to have been?”).

Today, many serious writers ignore the rule because it’s patently stupid and unnatural. Late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is reputed to have mocked this Latin-inspired rule by saying, “This is the kind of nonsense up with which I shall not put”!

Another thoughtless Latin-inspired rule the eighteenth-century grammarians imposed on English is the rule on split infinitives. An infinitive is a two-word form of the uninflected form of a verb, such as “go to,” to see,” “to laugh,” etc. If you allow words, usually an adverb, to come between “to” and the verb that follows it, you are said to be splitting your infinitives, and that was supposed to be bad grammar. 

So if I say, “He told me to seriously consider the proposal,” I would be guilty of splitting my infinitives. I should instead say, according to eighteenth-century grammarians, “He told me to consider seriously the proposal.” Of course, the “unsplit” infinitive construction sounds stilted and odd, which explains why most modern writers pooh-pooh it. In their wildly popular book, Modern English Usage, the Fowler brothers called pedants of the split infinitive rule “bogy-haunted creatures.”

Why Tautologies Should be Tolerated

Tautologies give vigor, intensity, and emphasis to our communication. They reduce ambiguity and enhance clarity, a reason lawyers love tautologies. Tautologies are particularly helpful in speech. If I say, for instance, “what is your PIN (personal identification number),” I can be misunderstood or misheard as saying, “Where is your pin (a sharp object that pokes)?” But if I say “PIN number” (which technically repeats “number” since the “n” in PIN stands for “number”), my hearer would be in no doubt about what I mean.

In defense of tautologies in speech, a linguist said the following in an online forum: “Those who have studied information theory will immediately realize that redundancy is very useful for error-correction. This is what phonology achieves. A lot of redundancies are imposed by phonotactic constraints (these constraints determine which sounds can occur where in a language, and whether they can occur at all). The redundancy in phonological representations acts as a safe-guard and reduces the probability that a sloppy or poorly-heard/noisy production is perceived as an unintended word.”

I entirely agree. Even in writing, disfavored redundancies like “repeat again,” “return back,” “free gift,” etc. are helpful ways to reinforce meaning.

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