Conversational tautologies

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Hi everyone!
I am a German student writing a scientific paper on conversational tautologies like "Boys will be boys", "War is war" or "A husband is a husband". Now I need some help from experts and native speakers.

I read, for example that the tautology "A husband is a husband" can have no less than four interpretations. These are the notions of obligation (there are obligations to fulfill towards one’s husband), appreciation (husbands do have positive aspects), indifference (one husband is not worse or better than another) and absolute generalization (all husbands are the same, one knows what to expect from them).

Now I wonder, when tautologies do not seem to work anymore. Obviously, the notion of generalization is lost the more specific the utterance is.
Example: "Aimless linguistic approaches will be aimless linguistic approaches"

I also found an utterance that made me wonder whether this can still be seen as a tautology:
“Maybe linguists are linguists because they can’t have any fun of their own with language.”

Would you say that this is a tautology?

Thanks a lot for answers, ideas and criticism!

PS: Do you know other language or linguistic forums where I could post my questions?

Clare James

Nov 26, 2007
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An interesting question.
The first two phrases you give as examples ('Boys will be boys' and 'War is war') are such frequently used expressions that they now have a fixed meaning - that boys behave badly and that bad things happen in war time.

The use of other phrases, such as 'Phrasal verbs will be phrasal verbs', for example, although not commonly used, would imply the same attitude of resigned acceptance of the negative aspects of the subject of the sentence. Maybe the implication is 'It's just the way things are, so there's not much we can do about it.'

Where the structure breaks down is much harder to define. I suppose, when a phrase is too long and too cumbersome, or when a phrase implies too much knowledge to refer to something everyone accepts as a truth, the structure no longer works as well. For example, you aren't going to hear many people making sentences like 'Ah well, Post-Hegelian dialecticism will be Post-Hegelian dialecticism.' - or if you did, then not many listeners would get anything meaningful out of the utterance.

Maybe an academic linguistics site though a university might have a forum. I don't know.
If you find one, it would be interesting to hear about it.



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Sep 6, 2007
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Jascha, you may also want to take a look here:
Relevance_Archives: RT list: Tautologies: 'A toothbrush is a to

Here's a peek:

Tautologies are interesting because they seem to hold no truth-content and so add no new information to a conversation, yet are widely used do carry a strong and obvious meaning. In particular, there are many common tautologies of the form 'X is X'. This example shows one such utterance in context:

A: 'I don't know what kind of toothbrush to get, there are toothbrushes
with flexible heads, toothbrushes with different shaped bristles,
toothbrushes hard bristles, soft bristles...'

B: 'A toothbrush is a toothbrush.'


Clare James

Nov 26, 2007
Member Type
Wow, that's a lot of interesting links you've found there.

One afterthought of mine is the literary use of this tautological structure by Gertrude Stein - a rose is a rose is a rose. It's argued that her use of this repetitive form reveals the emptiness of language and groundless assumptions which underlie all human discourse. Roland Barthes has things to say about this, too - about the 'referential code' which demands that the reader bring a large base of cultural assumptons to bear on the text. The sentence structure also demands that you accept that there is a body of accepted wisdom about boys or war, and that you subscribe to these assumptions. Barthes claims it's a form of rhetorical manipulation.

However, if your paper is scientific, I doubt very much you'd want to get into the realms of post-modern deconstructive literary theory. Just a pet topic of mine. Thanks for raising the subject, though.
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