Elegant variation

Elegant variation is a writer's substitution of "one word for another for the sake of variety". The term was introduced in 1906 by H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler in The King's English. In their meaning of the term, they focus particularly on instances when the word being avoided is a noun or its pronoun. Pronouns are themselves variations intended to avoid awkward repetition, and variations are so often necessary, that they should be used only when needed. The Fowlers recommend that "variations should take place only when there is some awkwardness, such as ambiguity or noticeable monotony, in the word avoided".[1]

HistoryEdit

Henry Fowler's later Dictionary of Modern English Usage, published in 1926, keeps the same definition, but more explicitly cautions against overuse of variations or synonyms by writers who are "intent on expressing themselves prettily", rather than "conveying their meaning clearly", adding that "there are few literary faults so prevalent." Fowler then quotes examples of when variations should have been used, and when they should not have been used.[2]

Since the term was established in 1906, it has been referred to in style and usage guides, but the original meaning has seen a number of variations. For example Bryan A. Garner suggests that when Fowler uses the word "elegant", he actually means the opposite—"inelegant"—because, according to Garner, at the time Fowler wrote, the word "elegant" was an "almost pejorative" word. Garner also claims that Fowler used the term elegant variation to refer to the "practice of never using the same word twice in the same sentence or passage". That is not Fowler's definition, and, as Richard W. Bailey points out, in misrepresenting Fowler, "Garner has created a linguist made of straw".[3][4] Nevertheless, following Garner, inelegant variation has been used by others, including Gerald Lebovits[5] and Wayne Schiess.[6]

ExamplesEdit

Dr. Lebbé seriously maintains that in the near future opium-smoking will be as serious as the absinthe scourge in France.[7]

H. W. Fowler suggests that sentence would be improved by changing "serious" to "grave", because "seriously" and "serious", in that case, do not relate to the same thing.
  • In The King's English (1906), Fowler gives as an example this passage from The Times:

The Emperor received yesterday and to-day General Baron von Beck ... It may therefore be assumed with some confidence that the terms of a feasible solution are maturing themselves in His Majesty's mind and may form the basis of further negotiations with Hungarian party leaders when the Monarch goes again to Budapest.[8]

In that example, The Emperor, His Majesty, and the Monarch all refer to the same person. Fowler points out that such extreme variations make it difficult to follow the sense of the sentence when the reader is distracted by "wondering what the King will be called next time". If a writer must choose between "monotonous repetition" and "clumsy variation", which are both undesirable, Fowler suggests picking the one that seems natural.[9]
  • Among sub-editors at The Guardian, "gratuitous synonyms" are called "povs", an acronym of "popular orange vegetables"—a phrase that was removed from the draft of an article about carrots in the Liverpool Echo.[10] Charles W. Morton similarly wrote of an "elongated yellow fruit", a presumed synonym of "banana" that was used in the Boston Evening Transcript.[11]
  • Garner's Modern American Usage cites examples given by Morton, including "elongated yellow fruit" and others: pool balls ("the numbered spheroids"); Bluebeard ("the azure-whiskered wifeslayer"); Easter-egg hunt ("hen-fruit safari"); milk ("lacteal fluid"); oysters ("succulent bivalves"); peanut ("the succulent goober"); songbird ("avian songster"); truck ("rubber-tired mastodon of the highway").[3]
  • The science fiction writing guide Turkey City Lexicon calls elegant variations the "Burly Detective" Syndrome after the character Mike Shayne who is called by euphemisms such as "the burly detective" or "the red-headed sleuth" in the series.[12]

A French language exampleEdit

In French the use of elegant variations is considered essential for good style.[13][14] A humorist imagined writing a news article about Gaston Defferre: "It's OK to say Defferre once, but not twice. So next you say the Mayor of Marseille. Then, the Minister of Planning. Then, the husband of Edmonde. Then, Gaston. Then, Gastounet and then ... · Well, then you stop talking about him because you don't know what to call him next."[15]

See alsoEdit

ReferencesEdit

CitationsEdit

  1. ^ Fowler, Henry W. And Fowler F. G. The King's English. Oxford University Press. 1906 p. 175-179.
  2. ^ A Dictionary of Modern Usage, Second Edition, 1965. H.W. Fowler. Oxford University Press:New York, Oxford. p. 148-150.
  3. ^ a b Garner, Bryan A. (2009). Garner's Modern American Usage (3rd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. p. 462. ISBN 978-0-19-538275-4.
  4. ^ Bailey, Richard W. (1999). "A Dictionary of Modern American Usage (review)". Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America. 20 (1): 151–155. doi:10.1353/dic.1999.0010. ISSN 2160-5076.
  5. ^ Lebovits, Gerald (March–April 2010). "Persuasive Writing for Lawyers—Part II". New York State Bar Association Journal. 82 (3): 60. Conversely, be aware of inelegant variation, in which a writer uses different words to mean the same thing. Inelegant variation confuses, whereas repetition has power
  6. ^ Schiess, Wayne (July–August 2009). "You Can Use the Same Word Twice in the Identical Discussion". Austin Lawyer. Wayne: 6. SSRN 1444012.
  7. ^ A Dictionary of Modern Usage, Second Edition, 1965. H.W. Fowler. Oxford University Press:New York, Oxford. p. 149.
  8. ^ Fowler, H.W.; Fowler, F.G. (1931). The King's English (3rd ed.). London: Oxford University Press. p. 187. ISBN 0-19-869105 X.
  9. ^ Fowler, H.W.; Fowler, F.G. (1931). The King's English (3rd ed.). London: Oxford University Press. p. 188. ISBN 0-19-869105 X.
  10. ^ "My synonym hell". Mind your language. The Guardian. 2 June 2010. Retrieved 30 September 2011.
  11. ^ "The Press: Elongated Fruit". Time. 10 August 1953. Archived from the original on 2 December 2008. Retrieved 30 September 2011.
  12. ^ Sterling, Bruce; Lewis Shiner. "Turkey City Lexicon: A Primer for SF Workshops". SFWA. Archived from the original on 14 August 2009.
  13. ^ Paterson, Ann (2006). "Painting with words". In Eugenia Loffredo, Manuela Perteghella (ed.). Translation And Creativity: Perspectives on Creative Writing And Translation Studies. Continuum. p. 88. ISBN 0-8264-8793-9. 'Elegant variation.' French tends to avoid repetition of proper names, with a description of the person, at second reference.
  14. ^ Fuller, Frederick (1984). The Translator's Handbook: (with special reference to conference translation from French and Spanish). Penn State University Press. p. 35. ISBN 0-271-00368-5.
  15. ^ Sarraute, Claude (22 May 1985). "Bis repetita". Le Monde (in French). p. 48.; cited and translated in Thogmartin, Clyde (1987). Elegant variation in French newspaper style (PDF). Mid-America Linguistics Conference. pp. 294–303: 294. Retrieved 26 May 2017.

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