Monday, November 25, 2019

Elegant Variation

Mario's mention of 'purple prose' reminded me of a linked subject I'd been meaning to write about – elegant variation.

I don't know whether the dislike of repetition is instinctive or instilled but I know that whatever I'm writing, using the same word twice in close proximity – unless deliberately – sets off a little warning buzzing in my head. It makes me uncomfortable, even if I'm just writing a quick email to a friend. And certainly it's something my copy editor pounces on if I've slipped up.

The danger is that it's so easy to go too far the other way, when the effort not to repeat puts the language through terrible contortions. It was HW Fowler, author of The King's English – the bible for classic English style – who introduced the phrase 'elegant variation'. Garner's Modern American Usage suggested that it should be rechristened 'inelegant usage', misunderstanding the ironic tone of Fowler's comment – 'elegant' implied 'pretentious.'

There are some wonderful examples, particularly in newspapers. At the Guardian newspaper they are known as 'povs' after a hapless journalist, trying to avoid repetition when he was writing about carrots, described them as 'the popular orange vegetable.' It went along with another where 'the elongated yellow fruit' was used to describe - well, I hardly need to tell you, do I?

Once you start looking out for it you see it everywhere. I found an article about the emperor who was later termed 'His Majesty' and then called 'the monarch.' (See what I did there?) Sports writing does it a lot – you get the guy's name, then it'll be 'the midfielder' or 'the star scorer' or 'the bearded player' – I could go on and on.

This approach is apparently particularly popular in France. A humorist explained, 'In an article about Gaston Deferre, it's OK to say Deferre once. So next you say the mayor of Marseilles. Then the Minister of Planning. Then, the husband of Esmonde. Then Gastounet, and then ... well then you stop talking about him because you don't know what to call him next.'

My favorite, though, was the report about a pet rat that was so fat it got stuck in an opening. In the course of the article, it became 'the rotund rodent', 'the furry fatso', 'the chubby pet', the well-upholstered mammal'. After that, I suppose the reporter just had to stop talking about it because, as the humorist said, he didn't know what to call it next.

I still can't stop myself from trying to avoid repetition but it's a timely warning to be very, very careful.


Susan D said...

Oh gosh, no kidding. I find myself lost in a whirlwind of excess people when I read a scene with, say, Coenraad, Helen, the officer, Col. Carver, and the reporter. I'm imagining a man, a woman, and three others who might be either.

No, it's just the two of them.

Z`ssx said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.