Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2022-04-24/Essay

The problem with elegant variation: An elegant Wikipedia essay.
In the most recent issue of The New Yorker, Naaman Zhou approvingly cites this Wikipedia essay on the problems caused by elegant variation. The essay was first posted in May 2018. You may edit the essay, but please do so at Wikipedia:The problem with elegant variation, not here.

Elegant variation is the attempt to relieve repetition by replacing words with synonyms. For example:

  • "Three homes were destroyed by a five-alarm fire yesterday. Neighbors reported the blaze about 4 pm. Two firefighters were injured battling the inferno. Officials called the conflagration suspicious."
  • "Pope Paul waved from the balcony. As the Supreme Pontiff raised his hand, it became apparent that the Holy Father‍'s glove had a large black stain, causing great embarrassment to the Bishop of Rome."

The English lexicographer H. W. Fowler coined "elegant variation" as an ironic criticism of this strategy. Elegant variation distracts the reader, removes clarity, and can introduce inadvertent humour or muddled metaphors. It can confuse readers who are unaware, for example, that the Pope is the Bishop of Rome. It fails to fix the real cause of repetitive prose, which is usually repeated information, not repeated words.

Some newspaper writers were famous for overusing synonyms:

It was around two decades ago [1930s], in the city room of the Boston Evening Transcript, that I first became aware of the elongated-yellow-fruit school of writing. The phrase turned up in a story, a determinedly funny story, about some fugitive monkeys and the efforts of police to recapture them by using bananas as bait. The young rewrite man of the story was bowling along in high spirits, full of references to "the gendarmes" [the police] and the "blue-coated minions of the law" [the police], and it was inevitable that in such a context the word banana would seem woefully dull. So it was that bananas became, after first mention, "the elongated yellow fruit"—a term which the Transcript staff always used thereafter in dealings with the office fruit peddler, especially when the young rewrite man was within earshot. — Charles W. Morton, 1955[1]

Elegant variation is often less absurd than in the examples above – for example, writing "the singer" instead of "Michael Jackson". It's often used to avoid repetition that arises from other problems, such as needlessly complex syntax: a case of treating the symptom and not the cause. Fixing elegant variation isn't always a case of removing flowery language, but making prose clearer and tighter overall. In other words, using plain English.

People (and chimps)

Elegant variation is often used on Wikipedia in reference to individuals – for example, writing "the director" instead of "Spielberg".

Here's a passage from an old version of the article about Bubbles, a pet chimpanzee once owned by Michael Jackson. The elegant variation is bolded:

Bubbles (born April 30, 1983) is a common chimpanzee once kept as a pet by American recording artist Michael Jackson, who bought the primate from a Texas research facility in the early 1980s. The animal frequently traveled with the singer, whose attachment to the animal led to media mockery.

This presumably emerges from an attempt to avoid repetition. But the English language already has a solution for repetitive nouns: pronouns (he / him / she / her / they / them / it). When a pronoun isn't clear, just use the original word. In 99% of cases, the result is perfectly natural:

Bubbles (born April 30, 1983) is a common chimpanzee once kept as a pet by American recording artist Michael Jackson, who bought him from a Texas research facility in the early 1980s. Bubbles frequently traveled with Jackson, whose attachment to him led to media mockery.

Clarity

Elegant variation can reduce clarity and introduce confusion, as in this excerpt from the article on the film Taxi Driver:

According to Scorsese, it was Brian De Palma who introduced him to Schrader. In Scorsese on Scorsese, the director talks about how much of the film arose from his feeling that movies are like dreams or drug-induced reveries.

Scorsese, De Palma, and Schrader are all directors – so which director does this refer to?

This example of elegant variation, from the article about the band Pavement, makes the sentence difficult to comprehend:

Nastanovich also later recalled an awkward incident where it became apparent that Godrich did not know the name of the auxiliary percussionist.

Who was the auxiliary percussionist? It was Nastanovich himself – a fact mentioned several thousand words earlier in the article, so good luck if you missed that.

Using elegant variation to add information

Elegant variation is sometimes used to add information with the purported advantage of avoiding repetition. This is rarely the clearest way to provide the information.

For example, the following passage from the Beatles article tells us that George Harrison was 15 when he met John Lennon:

Fifteen-year-old Paul McCartney met Lennon that July, and joined as a rhythm guitarist shortly after. In February 1958, McCartney invited his friend George Harrison to watch the band. The fifteen-year-old auditioned for Lennon, impressing him with his playing.

This requires the reader to work out who "the fifteen-year-old" refers to (made especially difficult here as, in the previous sentence, McCartney is also described as being fifteen). It's simpler and clearer to introduce information in a logical, sequential way:

Fifteen-year-old Paul McCartney met Lennon that July, and joined as a rhythm guitarist shortly after. In February 1958, McCartney invited his friend George Harrison, also fifteen, to watch the band. Harrison auditioned for Lennon, impressing him with his playing.

Latter / former

"The latter" and "the former" are rarely the best solution to repetition. For example:

Sarah and Louise went to a supermarket, where the former bought the latter an ice cream.

Without "the latter" and "the former", the sentence feels repetitive:

Sarah and Louise went to a supermarket, where Sarah bought Louise an ice cream.

This is an example of how repetition usually emerges from repeated information, not repeated words. As it stands, the sentence structure requires us to state the subjects (Sarah and Louise) twice. We already know who the subjects are, so this is repeated information.

The solution is to restructure the sentence:

At a supermarket, Sarah bought Louise an ice cream.

Title

The word "title" is sometimes used as a synonym for media such as movies, magazines, and particularly video games. For example: The classic Mega Man series consists of ten main titles. It seems to have been absorbed from press releases and video game journalism (reliable sources of bad writing). This is an example of the specialised style fallacy – in other words, copying the writing style of specialist sources without considering Wikipedia's general readership.

"Title" removes information and creates ambiguity. For example:

  • Sega announced the title Sonic Colors could mean that Sega announced the game or the title of the game.
  • Resident Evil titles might refer to the Resident Evil films, games, or both.

Why be imprecise? Be clear and direct and write "game", "film", etc instead of "title". Or remove the word entirely where possible: Sega announced Sonic Colors.

Titular and eponymous

Consider this sentence:

Batman Returns is a 1992 American superhero film directed by Tim Burton, based on the titular DC Comics character.

This likely derives from a fear of repeating the word "Batman". But replacing the second mention with words such as "titular", "eponymous" or "title character" only adds redundancy. Readers can see when a word or phrase is in the title – we don't need to tell them. What's more, this makes the wikilink destination less clear (see WP:EASTEREGG).

Be clear and direct:

Batman Returns is a 1992 American superhero film directed by Tim Burton, based on the DC Comics character Batman.

Of the same name

In articles about adaptations of works with the same title, it's common to wikilink using something like [[article title|of the same name]] or [[article title|the eponymous novel]]. For example:

Under the Skin is a 2013 science fiction film directed and co-written by Jonathan Glazer, loosely based on the 2000 novel of the same name by Michel Faber.

There are numerous problems with this:

  • It's extremely conspicuous - its only function is to avoid repeating the original term, and so is uncomfortably close to actually writing "I am avoiding repeating the name here".
  • It's often longer than the term it replaces.
  • It can make it unclear what exactly is being referred to.
  • It's a cliche.

The solution isn't necessarily obvious. For example:

Under the Skin is a 2013 science fiction film directed and co-written by Jonathan Glazer, loosely based on the novel by Michel Faber.

This isn't ideal, because it isn't clear where the wikilink novel leads: the novel Under the Skin, or the article about novels generally?

Writing out the name in full is clear:

Under the Skin is a 2013 science fiction film directed and co-written by Jonathan Glazer, loosely based on the 2000 novel Under the Skin by Michel Faber.

It may be clunky, but it beats "of the same name", which tries to mask clunkiness with worse clunkiness.

Two other possible solutions are to include "the" or a year in the link text.

Including "the" in the link text makes this unambiguous:

Under the Skin is a 2013 science fiction film directed and co-written by Jonathan Glazer, loosely based on the novel by Michel Faber.

Similarly, including the year in the link text provides a clue that it leads somewhere other than the novel article.

Under the Skin is a 2013 science fiction film directed and co-written by Jonathan Glazer, loosely based on the 2000 novel by Michel Faber.

This comes at the cost of obscuring the name of the novel. That's OK if the context suggests the film and novel share the name, as in the example above.

Alternatively, we could use two sentences to reduce the sense of repetition.

The Martian is a 2015 science fiction film directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon. Drew Goddard adapted the screenplay from The Martian, a 2011 novel by Andy Weir.

Further reading

  • Second Mentions, a Twitter account documenting examples of elegant variation

Notes

  1. ^ Charles W. Morton, A slight sense of outrage, 1955, p. 99-100