Eva van Emden (she/her), freelance editor

Certified copy editor and proofreader


June 19, 2011

(In)elegant variation

In a recent BBC News article about a company’s way of rewarding its salesmen, I ran across the following: “The prostitutes had worn colour-coded arm-bands . . . and the women had their arms stamped.” Gosh, I thought, were the prostitutes all men? No—I had been suckered by an elegant variation.

Henry Fowler coined the term “elegant variation” to describe the unnecessary use of different words for the same thing. You see it a lot in journalism: “Jane Smith is an avid cyclist,” continues as, “The mother of four also enjoys fishing, knitting and swimming.” We often see “blaze” for fire, “blast” for explosion, “slay” for kill, and sometimes “temblor” for earthquake. Vancouver Magazine is fond of referring to restaurants as “rooms,” although this is probably due to hipness as much as to fear of repetition. Writers pull out the thesaurus to keep from repeating themselves: Fowler’s Modern English Usage gives an example where “have” becomes “possess,” and then “own” as the sentence progresses. This technique can really call attention to itself and make a sentence anything but elegant.

But elegant variation isn’t just annoying; it makes your writing less clear. When I come across “mother of four,” it takes me an extra fraction of a second to think back to “Jane Smith” and connect the two. In most contexts, readers make the connection without any trouble, but sometimes they will think you used two different words because you are talking about two different things—as I did when I read the BBC article quoted above—and that can cause serious confusion.

Other ways to avoid repetition

Bryan Garner suggests that the rule of thumb is to avoid repeating a word in the same sentence if it can be done felicitously. What’s a felicitous fix? I suggest:
  • Use a pronoun: “Jane Smith is an avid cyclist. She also enjoys . . .”
  • Leave the word out: “Jane Smith is an avid cyclist and also enjoys . . .” Or after “A fire broke out in Oak Hills last night,” instead of saying “Three people were killed in the blaze,” consider “Three people were killed.”
If there’s no good way to remove the repetition, leave it in. It’s better to repeat the occasional word than to bend your sentences out of shape with clichés or confusing changes of name.

More about elegant variation