Conversational tautologies in English

Theoretical approach and investigation of examples

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar), 2008
16 Seiten, Note: 2,5


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Theoretical approach
2.1 General characteristics of conversational tautologies
2.2 Different types of tautologies
2.2.1 Tenses in tautologies
2.2.2 Singular vs. plural nouns
2.2.3 Concrete vs. abstract nouns
2.2.4 Tautologies addressing human role nouns
2.2.5 Modifiers in tautological usage
2.2.6 Sentence type distinctions

3. Investigation of examples
3.1 Results for searches with the search engine Google
3.2. Analysis of search results
3.2.1 Students are students and variations
3.2.2. Students are just students
3.2.3. Teachers are teachers and variations
3.2.4. Girls are girls and variations
3.2.5. Lawyers are lawyers and variations

4. Conclusion

5. Works cited:

1. Introduction

The aim of this scientific paper is an exemplary but detailed analysis of English conversational tautologies. Based on relevant secondary literature I want to sum up theoretical investigations to present a systematic classification and categorization for a concrete analysis. This includes various ways of distinguishing between different types of tautological utterances. Next, I will examine a number of tautologies in view of their usage, effect and commonness by means of the search engine Google[1]. I also want to add information on the issue, at which point common conventions of tautological usage become invalid.

2. Theoretical approach

To analyze conversational tautologies on a concrete level, it will be necessary to present a theoretical framework as a basis for analysis. The following chapter will distinguish different types of tautologies and elucidate their different effects and contexts.

2.1 General characteristics of conversational tautologies

To offer a general idea about the function of conversational tautologies one can say, that in “tautological utterances […] speakers exploit the Gricean maxims of ‘Quantity’ and ‘Relation’ to convey ‘generalized conversational implicatures’” (Ward and Hirschberg 1991: 507). For example, sentences like boys will be boys or kids are kids are necessarily true patent tautologies, which express that it is correct to call something a boy if it is usually referred to as a boy. According to Grice’s maxim of Quantity, such utterances can be identified as conversational implicatures, which convey – in the first example – the idea of unruly behavior that one can usually expect from boys (Wierzbicka 1991: 391). This becomes more clear when a tautology is taken literally, since then the tautological utterance becomes uninformative and must therefore flout the maxim of Quantity and have a deeper meaning (Gibbs 1994: 346).

Another important aspect is that tautological utterances are not factual sentences, but they express a certain attitude, which can hardly be defined as true or false and can be regarded as the tautology’s language-specific meaning (Wierzbicka 1991: 397). The fact that some tautologies are language-specific, contradicts the Gricean concept of tautologies and makes clear that some tautologies cannot be encoded by means of general pragmatic maxims. This is illustrated by Wierzbicka, who makes clear that expressions like Boys will be boys are not used in French, German or Russian (Wierzbicka 1991: 392).

In difference to their account of a universal encoding of tautological utterances, many linguists agree to the idea that tautologies are mainly used to convey a certain attitude. Gibbs, for example, writes that the very form of tautologies signals that the speaker wants to imply that he shares with his hearer an attitude towards the noun mentioned in the tautology and that he wants the hearer to recall this attitude. The character of this attitude depends on the utterance’s context, as well as specific stereotypical understandings, which are shared by the interlocutors (Gibbs 1994: 347-48). Fraser adds to this aspect that when the speaker wants the hearer to recognize a certain viewpoint towards an object, the hearer has to interpret which exact property of the mentioned object is addressed (Fraser 1988: 220). Since the addressed beliefs are not addressed literally, metonymic reasoning is required to interpret tautologies in different contexts (Gibbs 1994: 351).

Similar to the ideas of Gibbs and Fraser, Miki suggests that tautologies reaffirm mutually held assumptions. By evoking these assumptions in a hearer’s awareness, the speaker connects known attributes with the ongoing context and causes a “reestablishment of shared beliefs”. Miki then specifies the quality of this reestablishment and mentions that by means of a tautology, a speaker can convey to his hearer a feeling of agreement and unison in a sense of solidarity, togetherness or camaraderie. In difference to that, the type of knowledge that is shared between speaker and hearer, may differ in various situations. It can be an understanding based on a previous discourse, common knowledge among family, friends or subcultural groups, or based on beliefs or expectations that are assumed to be shared by a majority of a community. This broad variation also explains the wide range of possible interpretations of tautologies (Miki 1996: 641-43). To illustrate the difficulty of finding a method for general understanding of tautologies, I will state two examples. The interpretation of the tautology Boys will be boys can imply that boys are unruly in one context, but may also convey that they are cute and adorable in another. This makes perfectly clear that a tautology’s implication depends not only on context and but also on shared knowledge between speaker and hearer (Gibbs 1994: 346). About the message of common English tautologies one can say that they generally seem to express “this cannot be changed.” This does fit for tautologies such as A snake is a snake or Kids are kids, Boys will be boys, Let bygones be bygones, Enough is enough and That’s that, but the phrase I don’t care what brand – coffee is coffee clearly is an exception that exclusively contains a notion of indifference (Wierzbicka 1991: 441-42). Therefore it may be difficult to find a universal method of interpreting the different types of tautologies and their speaker’s intentions, since every single tautology contains a different set of evoked associations and stereotypes. The complexity of this problem becomes even clearer, when the very same tautology is used in two different contexts, where it can stress two completely different notions or attitudes.After having described the general functions and effects of conversational tautologies, I will present an overview of various possibilities of phrasing tautological utterances in the following chapter.

2.2 Different types of tautologies

As mentioned before, tautological utterances can convey a certain attitude or a positive or negative value that the speaker wants to emphasize. Besides that, grammatical distinctions can be made in view of a tautology’s tense and number, but also semantic distinctions between abstract and concrete nouns are possible. According to Wierzbicka, English tautologies can also be subdivided into the semantic categories of absolute generalization, indifference, obligation and undeniable value (Wierzbicka 1991: 447). In the following I will categorize various types of tautologies and describe their different effects and emphases.

2.2.1 Tenses in tautologies

With regard to the use of tenses in English tautologies, one can distinguish between tautologies addressing future, present and past events. The most common tautologies in present tense, such as War is war or Kids are Kids, present a current state of being and convey an attitude of indulgence or acceptance. An addition of the modal ‘will’ leads to an interesting side effect. As Gibbs points out, modal tautologies suggest information on the future and imply an existing stereotype’s continued existence, which can only be informative if the addressed stereotype is able to undergo changes. Clearly, a teacher is more capable of change than a carrot, which leads to the conclusion that a tautology addressing a carrot has little informative value (Gibbs 1994: 349). To illustrate this distinction, one can say that Teachers will be teachers comes with a lot more semantic associations and evokes more specific attitudes than Carrots will be carrots.

Wierzbicka also supports this idea and states that the pattern ‘NP will be NP’ is incompatible with inanimate nouns, which is caused by semantic explications (Wierzbicka 1988: 223). She also agrees that the modal will in the example of Boys will be boys even strengthens the notion of tolerance and indulgence (Wierzbicka 1991: 398). In this context Gibbs makes clear that the tautological pattern “N(plural) will be N(plural)” generally contains a notion of negative aspects but also an attitude of indulgence, which explains why phrases like Murderers will be murderers must be less valid examples of tautological utterances (Gibbs 1994: 347). This example contains a notion of negative aspects but clearly lacks an attitude of indulgence. The contained conflict marks a clear border of the conventions of tautological constructions and shows at which point the validity and applicability of English tautologies seems to come to an ending.

Wierzbicka also offers a distinction between tautologies that refer to future and past events. When dealing with future events, tautologies imply that future events must and will remain unknown, which seems to convey a fatalistic attitude. Speaking of past events, tautologies imply that what has already happened cannot be changed (Wierzbicka 1991: 400-402). In view of Tautologies addressing past events, like Let bygones be bygones or What’s done is done, Wierzbicka sums up that they usually refer to events that are seen as negative and unchangeable. Moreover, the speaker seems to refuse to recollect the event and to let it generate negative feelings. In this case, the former conflict seems to have taken place between the interlocutors and the speaker conveys an “active call for peace” (Wierzbicka 1991: 434).


[1], 14.04.2008

Ende der Leseprobe aus 16 Seiten


Conversational tautologies in English
Theoretical approach and investigation of examples
Universität Hamburg
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
488 KB
Conversational, English, Theoretical
Arbeit zitieren
Jascha Walter (Autor), 2008, Conversational tautologies in English, München, GRIN Verlag,


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