Monday, November 22, 2010

Elegant variation (2)

Elegant variation is the gratuitous use of synonyms to avoid repetition of a noun or noun phrase. It is common practice among poorly educated writers, who think it is somehow refined.* It is not refined, but it can be confusing, distracting and irritating.

Example of elegant variation

In a wikiHow article titled “How to Solve a Problem,” the authors use obstacle, challenge and issue as synonyms for problem.

As a sample, here are the first 131 words of the article (boldface added):

Problem solving is one of the most essential [sic] skills in life. Regardless of who you are or what you do, you will face obstacles. How you deal with such challenges will often be a determining factor [sic] in how successful you are at life. While problems come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, this article can give you a rough idea of how to solve one in a general sense.


1. Approach the issue with clarity. This is the first and most important component to [sic] problem solving. While action and energy can often assist you in overcoming challenges, this effort is a waste if misguided or misplaced. The first step is always to approach any issue in a clear and logical manner, even if under time constraints or pressure.

Analysis of the example

When an intelligent reader encounters “obstacles,” he has to stop reading for a moment, look back, and guess whether the authors intend it as a synonym for “problems.” From the context, he guesses that it could be a synonym for “problems.” Or, the authors might be suggesting that an obstacle could be the occasion of a problem. He continues reading.

When he encounters “challenges,” he stops reading again. The word “such” preceding “challenges” helps him guess that the authors mean “challenges” as a synonym for “obstacles,” which in turn may or may not be a synonym for “problems.” He is becoming distracted, but he continues reading.

In the next sentence, he encounters “problems,” and feels a little better.

Then, in the next paragraph (Step 1), he reads, “Approach the issue with clarity.” His distraction is becoming irritation. He silently asks, “Are they using issue as yet another synonym for problem? “Why are these people fooling around like this? They promised to explain how to solve a problem, and now they’re playing games with me.” He continues reading.

During the remainder of Step 1, he encounters “problem,” “challenges” and “issue.” His irritation is becoming resentment. He silently thinks, “They’re not going to stop this. I’ll just look somewhere else.” He returns to Google to look for another article on how to solve problems.

The Takeaway: Try to avoid elegant variation. If you persistently use elegant variation, you will repel your intelligent readers.

See disclaimer.

*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 of elegant is now forgotten, so elegant variation has become a confusing misnomer. Today, gratuitous variation would be more accurate; however, elegant variation remains in wide use.

No comments:

Post a Comment