Tautology Tuesday: how to avoid inflation when introducing a bulleted list

This week’s tautology is a phrase that seems to precede every bulleted list in every corporate document I come across: “include, among (or amongst) others”. (And the 2,444,000 instances of the phrase returned by a quick Google search prove that this tautology is, indeed, rife).

An example might be:

J. K. Rowling’s books include, among others:

- Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
- The Tales of Beedle the Bard

The introduction to the bulleted list would have been fine as simply “J. K. Rowling’s books include:” because the word “include” already tells us that the following list is not complete – that these books are “among others”. So including the words “among others” adds nothing but verbiage.

And the trouble with tautology is that it’s inflationary in nature. Once writers begin to feel that “include, among others” isn’t sufficiently wordy, they start to resort to the triply tautological “examples include, among(st) others” (currently just 1,187 instances on Google but you can bet that number’s growing).

Again, the fact that you’ve stated that you’re merely listing “examples” of, say, J.K. Rowling’s novels, implies that they are “included among others”. So please just precede your list with “Examples of J.K. Rowling’s novels are:”.

Anything else sounds as if you’re trying to cover your back about not providing a definitive list. Which brings me back to why I hate tautology – it makes you seem rather desperate. And that’s so not a good look in a writer.

9 Responses to “Tautology Tuesday: how to avoid inflation when introducing a bulleted list”

  1. Blake says:

    But, in your correcting example, don’t you run into the problem of a colon dividing one sentence into two ungrammatical, dependent clauses?

    In the US, our default style manual is Strunk & White, which states that a colon “should not separate a verb from its complement or a preposition from its object.” This has always been one of my pet peeves, and I am noticing it more as people begin to rely on indented lists in blogs and PowerPoint decks.

    Is it different in the UK? The Economist’s style guide is unclear, though it does imply that a colon should be used to separate an independent clause from a list of items.

  2. clare says:

    Thanks for commenting, Blake.

    You sent me off on a bit of a grammatical hunt. I can find no explicit reference to the rule you cite in any of my UK grammar guides, though I did find a website that said the practice isn’t always followed in British English. I suspect we in the UK are a little more relaxed about this issue.

    I would say that the correcting example doesn’t introduce the problem – it is there in the original. The illiterate “Include, among others” isn’t an independent clause either – the “among others” is supplementary information and the verb is still separated from its complements.

    Also, and I know this is sticking my head above the parapet, language is a constantly changing thing and my example, as you acknowledge, reflects very common current practice, especially in business writing. As anyone who’s read my earlier post on the split infinitive will know, while I’m all for correct grammar and punctuation, I’m not a complete prescriptivist. So we have to ask ourselves if the colon here really matters enough to get worked up about? The punctuation doesn’t obscure the meaning (as it does in the phrase “eats, shoots and leaves”, for example).

    I do sometimes feel that pedantry can cause us to focus on the wrong things when it comes to writing (in fact, I’ve been planning to blog about it at some point). Whatever your feelings towards the colon, my solution deals with the tautology, which to me is a far greater crime!

  3. Blake says:

    You’re right, your correction did not create the problem. I was unclear in my first comment.

    In the US, the rule from Strunk & White is sometimes shortened, incorrectly, to “a colon should never follow a verb or a preposition.” This may be why you see this particular tautology so often (in the US, anyway). People do not want to put a colon after the verb “include,” so they add the filler words, creating the tautology.

    I’m no prescriptivist either, and completely agree that split infinitives are no big deal. But, all of this could be a clear example of why prescriptivism is oftentimes necessary: in an attempt to avoid one error, a writer can stumble into an even worse error. Knowing and following the basic rules leads to clean writing.

    Can’t wait to read your take on pedantry.

  4. clare says:

    Interesting. So the lesson here is not to follow rules slavishly – but to understand why they’re there. That way, too, you’ll know which rules it is OK to break, and when.

    For any readers wanting to know how to keep everyone happy, I would suggest you lose both the colon and the “among others”, giving the following:

    J. K. Rowling’s books include

    - Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
    - Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
    - The Tales of Beedle the Bard

  5. --Deb says:

    As I understand it, you should never put a colon directly after a verb primarily because a colon’s main function is to introduce. Putting it after the verb is redundant, since the verb is already introducing the list.

  6. Chris says:

    Some examples of this are here http://www.tcs.com/industries/healthcare/Pages/default.aspx

    Take your pick. “…which may include but are not limited to the following:”

    I did not like the phrase “TCS understands your business objectives and helps you achieve and exceed them”. I struggle with the logic of both achieving and exceeding my objectives at the same time.

  7. Clare Lynch says:

    Great examples, Chris.

    The “may include but are not limited to the following” formula, especially when repeated in a near-liturgical manner has an almost comical cover-your-back legal ring to it, don’t you think? It’s as though they’re saying: “Please, please, PLEASE give us the work – even if what you want is not listed here, we can do it, honest!”

    Same with “achieve and exceed” – it’s as though they’re trying to cover all possible outcomes.

    Both examples support my view that tautology makes you sound desperate and untrustworthy.

    On a separate note, I’m intrigued to see that they offer help with “integrated care delivery networks”. Oh how I love impenetrable concatenations of nouns!

  8. Chris says:

    Thank you.

    I think you’re right. It can sound desperate. My immediate thought is “mmm. You claim to be able to do what I need. Yet you’re not good enough at it to boast about it in your list of ‘things we do’”.

    On the subject of comical legalese, I was sent this snippet by a friend from a recent New Scientist article. It features this same ‘…but are not limited to…’ fun.

    “Forget this before reading
    THE bank HSBC recently sent David Holdsworth new “General Terms and Conditions” which, among other things, require him to take reasonable precautions to prevent fraudulent use of his security details. To his dismay, the lawyers specify: “These [precautions] include but are not limited to never writing down your security details and not choosing security details to make them more memorable to you. ‘In short,’ Holdsworth summarises, “I must choose passwords that I find difficult to remember and not write them down.’ ”

  9. Clare Lynch says:

    Hilarious. A great example, too, of how rephrasing an overly complex phrase in plain English can reveal the absurdity in original statement.

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