Elegant variation

From Academic Kids

Elegant variation is a phrase coined by Henry W. Fowler to refer to the unnecessary use of synonyms to mean a single thing. In Modern English Usage (1926) he 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 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 in Modern English Usage, "is to set readers wondering what the significance of the change is, only to conclude that there is none." Elegant variation is still common in modern journalism, where, for example, a "fire" often becomes a "blaze" or a "conflagration" with no clear justification, and it is considered an especial fault in legal, scientific, and technical writing, where it is important to avoid ambiguity. One of the commonly cited examples of the potential negative effect of elegant variation is the use of "elongated yellow fruit" as an elegant variation of "banana".

When Fowler coined the term in the 1920s, the word elegant had acquired a pejorative connotation of precious over-refinement, which it has lost today. Bryan Garner, in The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style, unambiguously renamed the term: inelegant variation.

Note that a degree of variation likely to be found excessive in English prose may be considered good writing style in another language, for example French.

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