The Sceptical Chymist | Avoiding redundant tautologies in scientific writing

Published in Chemistry

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This is a guest post from Reuben Hudson at Colby College in response to one of Michelle Francl‘s recent Thesis columns.


Chemists communicate with a lexicon rife with double endendres [ref. 1]. Some of our words take on new meanings after appropriation from general vocabulary and certainly our words cross into the public sphere with a similar alteration of the intended meaning, often resulting in humorous or nonsensical interpretations. Despite our urge for vigorous [ref. 2], concise [refs 3,4], and clearly understandable prose [ref. 5], Michelle Francl [ref. 1] suggests that we not avoid all ambiguous language ‘for it gives chemists a rich set of images to draw on, and as such, we shouldn’t discourage it, for we can’t look for what our language doesn’t let us imagine.’ I agree whole-heartedly with her encouragement to use, when appropriate, single phrases with multiple meanings, and take this opportunity to point out the equally common, seemingly opposite practice in the chemical literature of incorporating multiple, redundant inferences of the same meaning in a single phrase.

Redundancies are a part of quality science. Elegant reproduction can build a compelling argument. Reiteration of a thesis strengthens rhetoric. Unintentionally repeating again the same point, however, is a sign of ineptitude and detracts from effective communication.

Tautologies (redundancies for lack of style) can arise as a result of an incomplete understanding. Such is often the case with bilingual acronyms, where the acronym itself is retained, but the meaning clearly lost in translation, a laughable and excusable miscue. Consider ‘le protocol IP’ from French computer science (internet protocol protocol). Without the crutch of an improper translation, other redundant acronyms become more laughable and less excusable. Biologists first introduced the term, ‘HIV virus’ (human immunodeficiency virus virus), while physicists brought us LASER light (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation light). Chemists are perhaps the worst when it comes to tautological acronyms. Any student of organic chemistry will remember one of the cornerstone reactions: the SN2 substitution (guess what ‘S’ represents). The CDC coupling reaction (cross dehydrogenative coupling coupling), a new innovation rolled out by green chemists, is a halogen-free means of carbon–carbon bond formation.

To this point, the discussion has ostensibly focused only on redundant acronyms. The careful reader will have also noticed the equally egregious use of tautological phrases within this very post, several of which see frequent use in scientific publications. An innovation is, by definition, something new. It is therefore tautological to say, ‘new innovation.’ An introduction is the first time something is presented. Thus, ‘first introduced’ is redundant for lack of style. Repeat means to say again, so it is superfluous to say, ‘repeat again.’ The title of this post is also tautological.


1. Francl, M. Nature Chem. 7, 533–534 (2015). [LINK]
2. Patience, P. A., Patience, G. S., Boffito, D. C. Can. J. Chem. Eng. 93, 2095–2097 (2015). [LINK]
3. Hudson, R. J. Chem. Educ. 90, 1580 (2013). [LINK]
4. Carr, J. M. J. Chem. Educ. 90, 751-754 (2013). [LINK]
5. Stewart, A. F. et al. J. Chem. Educ. doi:10.1021/acs.jchemed.5b00373 (2015). [LINK]

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