Elegant and Inelegant Variation

by F.

“Elegant variation” is a classic editor’s bugaboo. The phrase was coined by Fowler and refers to a writers’ tick: when you are describing something you’ve already described, you use different words. So if you’ve written about a banana and want to refer to it again, you might say “elongated yellow fruit” the next time. Here’s an example from Fowler:

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.

The words in red refer to the same guy—the Emperor. The writer of this passage, which dates from the early 1900s, varies these references on purpose. Hence, elegant variation.

Fowler hated this and, reading the above example, it’s easy to see why. It’s confusing if you don’t know that the subject is the same. But a categorical rule against it makes little sense for a couple reasons. Check out a passage from this week’s edition of The Economist:

Warren Buffett is also sniffing around, armed with a cash pile approaching $50 billion. When the price is right, he told the Wall Street Journal this week, “I can spend money faster than Imelda Marcos.” Unlike the Philippines’ former first lady, however, he will be looking for weather-beaten shoes in need of a shine.

There’s nothing wrong with this and much right with it. Both phrases refer to the same thing (the woman with lots of shoes), but the second reference adds information and explains Buffet’s allusion. If you don’t know who Imelda Marcos is, you get that information in the second “elegant” variation. If you kind of know who she is, you get a gentle reminder—“Oh, right, not Malaysia but the Philippines.”

So that’s one thing right with it. Another is surprise. Readers love surprise, provided it doesn’t destroy meaning (which the example about Ferdinand Marcos’ wife doesn’t). Variation keeps the surprises—and the information—flowing. It’s nothing to fear. Boring writing communicates no better than florid writing and often worse, since no on wants to read it.

When does elegant variation work? When giving more information. If the variation doesn’t add information (as using “the Emperor” then “His Majesty” then “the Monarch” doesn’t), cut it.

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