Saturday, December 20, 2008

Elegant variation

Another type of mistake in the Somalian immigrants story is elegant variation. Elegant variation is the gratuitous use of synonyms to avoid repetition of a noun or noun phrase. It is a common mistake among poorly educated writers, who tend to think the variation is somehow refined.*

The Associated Press writer fairly consistently refers to the Somalian immigrants as “the Somalis” or “Somalis.” But he slips into elegant variation with “[i]mmigrants” and “newcomers” and “black refugees from the war-torn African country.” Those mistakes reveal the writer’s poor training, but at least they are not too damaging to clarity.

However, the writer does do some damage in a key passage in which he is paraphrasing a Somali spokesman:

“Many had been placed in the Atlanta area, where it was assumed a warm climate and a large black population would ease their adjustment to America. But dismay at high crime, drugs and gangs prompted the community to look elsewhere, Mohamud said.”

“[T]he community” probably means the Somalis. In other words, the Somalis who had settled in Atlanta were dismayed at the crime, drugs and gangs they encountered there and they started looking for another city to move to.

But “the community” could also mean government officials in Atlanta. That is to say, government officials in Atlanta were dismayed by crimes, drugs and gangs that some Somalis introduced to Atlanta, and then the government officials decided to persuade or compel all Somalis to move to another city.

That is a less-probable meaning, but plausible enough to distract the reader. In other words, the elegant variation makes the reader waste his time doubting and then confirming the writer’s probable intent. In addition, the reader may become irritated when he realizes that the writer has distracted him for a frivolous purpose: to use elegant variation in order to purchase refinement on the cheap.

The Takeaway: Unless you are writing poetry, avoid elegant variation. It will confuse and irritate your readers.

*The phrase elegant variation was coined during the 1920s by Henry Watson Fowler, the British philologist and author of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926). At that time, the word elegant connoted over-refinement. That connotation is now forgotten, so elegant variation has become a misnomer. I prefer gratuitous variation to elegant variation. By the way, I strongly recommend Mr. Fowler’s Dictionary.

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