Many of us, while we're writing, go out of our way to not repeat a word or phrase within a sentence or a paragraph because we imagine, understandably perhaps, that to do so would make the sentence or paragraph awkward and monotonous. But trying to solve the problem by replacing these words or phrases with synonyms can lead to ambiguity, and often disrupts the flow of the sentence. "Elegant variation" is the phrase coined by English lexicographer Henry Watson Fowler to refer to these "substitutions of one word for another for the sake of variety", as the writer conspicuously strains to avoid harmless repetition. (When Fowler coined the term in the 1920s, the word "elegant" had a negative connotation of precious overrefinement that it no longer has today, and in "The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style", author Bryan Garner unambiguously renamed the term "inelegant variation".)

In "Modern English Usage" (1926) Fowler wrote:

"It is the second-rate writers, those intent rather on expressing themselves prettily than on conveying their meaning clearly, & still more those whose notions of style are based on a few misleading rules of thumb, that are chiefly open to the allurements of elegant variation. ... The fatal influence ... is the advice given to young writers never to use the same word twice in a sentence – or within 20 lines or other limit."

In "The King's English" (1908), he gives as one of his several examples 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."
Fowler objected to this passage, because "The Emperor", "His Majesty", and "the Monarch" all refer to the same person. "The effect", he pointed out, "is to set readers wondering what the significance of the change is, only to conclude that there is none."

Take this sentence: "Four of the defendant’s witnesses were women, while all of the plaintiff’s witnesses were ladies". In trying not to repeat the word "women", the writer implies that there is something different about the plaintiff’s group of witnesses. Another example of this would be a document continually referring to a person as a "landlord", then suddenly switching to referring to this same person as a "lessor" - the reader may then be led to believe that the "landlord" is not the same person as the "lessor". These examples illustrate why we should be careful about varying for the sake of variety in this way.

While we would understandably want to avoid awkward repetition, using a thesaurus to find synonyms to use as replacement is often not the answer. Synonyms listed in the thesaurus often have different shades of meaning, and cannot be used as straightforward replacements for each other. And when the synonyms we choose are uncommon words, they tend to leap off the page at the reader, attracting their attention to how something's being said and distracting them from what is being said.

The solution is often to restructure the sentence or paragraph so as to eliminate the problem entirely. Where there is no change in meaning, either repeat the word, or, if it sounds awkward, change the structure and omit the word altogether. Sometimes we can overcome the problem by using a pronoun or some other means of reference.

In his Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Fowler said of elegant variation, "There are few literary faults so widely prevalent, and this book will not have been written in vain if the present article should heal any sufferer of his infirmity."

His advice? "When the choice lies between monotonous repetition on the one hand and clumsy variation on the other, it may fairly be laid down that of two undesirable alternatives the natural is to be preferred to the artificial."

Sources: newsletter, "Monthly Info about Editing, Writing, Style, Words...", October 29, 2001 -
Article on effective legal writing and clarity -
Deccan Herald, 19 Feb 2004 article on elegant variation -
Wikipedia article on elegant variation -
Online version of "The King's English" -
Columbia Journalism Review, Language Corner article -

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