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Tautology, or How to Write Better than Tolkien

The Hobbit is a charming adventure, and it doesn’t matter to me that as literature, Tolkien’s style is often wanting. Except for one weakness, which is an obvious mistake that many people make in their own business writing.

Take this passage:

'This grew to the unmistakable gurgling noise of some vast animal snoring in its sleep down there in the red glow in front of him.'

We know that Bilbo is walking down a tunnel; there is no need to specify ‘in front of him’ or ‘down there’. And as the author has just taken a paragraph to describe the red light, ‘in the red glow’ is laying it on a bit thick. Even 'in its sleep' is redundant. When else do animals snore?

'This grew to the unmistakable gurgling noise of some vast animal snoring.'

Sorry to interrupt…

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On almost every page of The Hobbit Tolkien doubles up phrases that mean the same thing.

'… neither up nor down it could he find anything: nothing at all, no sign of goblins, no sign of dwarves'

'At that Thorin shut his mouth and would not say another word.'

'They were alone in the perilous waste without hope of further help.'

'… ridges that fell ever downwards towards the plain.'

'Beneath him, under all his limbs and his huge coiled tail…'

Tautology is repeating yourself, again, twice

Saying the same thing twice in different words is a form of tautology. It can be hard to avoid (as I’m discovering painfully in redrafting my own book) when you are trying to emphasise a point. Do it once or twice and no one will notice. Do it repeatedly, and your writing becomes bloated and unconvincing.

Examine, if you can stay awake, these bullet points from a website spec document:

  • Website needs to be designed and implemented with usability and easy user interaction as key objectives
  • Usability best practice needs to be adhered to

Aside from the unnecessary ‘designed and implemented’, look how many different ways usability is stressed:

with usability = easy user interaction = usability best practice

needs to be designed = as key objectives = best practice needs to be adhered to

What’s wrong with…?

  • Website must be highly usable

Or take this property description from an estate agent website:

The property is convenient for easy access to all nearby facilities.

Convenient for = easy access to = nearby

Wouldn’t it be clearer to say…?

The house is near shops.

The simple, say-it-once approach gets the message across clearly, without causing the reader to gouge her brain out with a plastic fork. In the case of the spec document, it would also have cut the number of pages in half.

I wonder how much shorter The Lord of the Rings might have been if Tolkien had edited out the repetition? (Peter Jackson would still have made three 4-hour films out of it, mind).

George Orwell said it best: 'If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.'

You may think that you are emphasising a point, but tautology is a weakness in style. You will get your point across more effectively if you stick to plain English.

Because – the reader gets it the first time.

Originally published on SmyWord.com

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