Plain English Guide: tautologies

A regular Engine Room reader who has asked to remain anonymous has emailed me a local government 'Plain English Guide'. At 27 pages, it is perhaps a little long-winded but then again it is still shorter than the style guide and glossary of the magazine that I work for.

I was particularly struck by its list of tautologies (or as the guide says, "words that mean the same thing"). It includes:

  • free gift
  • new innovation
  • pair of twins
  • past history
  • vast majority
  • brief moment
  • circle round
  • join together
  • repeated again
  • mutual co-operation
  • whether or not
  • a dead corpse
  • added bonus
  • revert back
  • future prospects
  • early beginnings
  • unite together

Now, I'm not sure that quite all of these are actually tautologous. 'Vast majority', for example – it is possible for a political party to have a slim majority, so I don't have a problem with vast majority either. What do you reckon?

And on another note, I remember a (former) member of the news desk here who was convinced it was incorrect to use the word 'whether' without following it with 'or not' . All I can imagine is that he fell under the influence of an ill-informed or malicious teacher at some point in his schooling...

(By the way – yesterday's question was correctly answered by TootsNYC, so read the comments if you were stumped.)


Anonymous said...

I agree with you about 'vast majority' only if the majority was truly vast--say 80% or more. I tend to use 'whether or not' when I'm writing but I catch it during a self-edit.

I follow Plain English guidelines when my readers have a low education level or when my documents will be translated.

Ant Heald said...

Hmm - an interesting list.

Some of the tautologies do indeed seem to exhibit redundancy (repeated again; dead corpse; revert back), but others seem to me to have a rhetorical force that is lost without one of the pair (brief moment; join together; mutual cooperation; added bonus).

I must admit I'm finding it difficult to find a coherent and convincing explanation of the distinction I feel between them (and might not the 'between' be redundant after 'distinction'?)

Only just come across your blog, by the way.

Grand stuff.

JD (The Engine Room) said...

Hi Ant, thanks for your kind comment.

I totally understand what you are saying about rhetorical force, but am not sure whether (or rather, when) this outweighs any argument against redundancy.

On a slightly different note, I'm not sure that 'repeated again' is always a tautology; it depends on context. For example, I could say 'bananas', repeat myself once, then repeat myself again...

goofy said...

Redundancy needs some better PR. Many of the things we say are redundant - in fact redundancy is a necessary fact of language.