Elegant variation is the unnecessary and sometimes misleading use of synonyms to denote a single thing. It often comes from the belief that simple parallel structure is monotonous or harms euphony or compositional tone. Elegant variation can produce problems including loss of clarity, muddled metaphor, and inadvertent humor.
Henry Watson Fowler (1858–1933) coined the name elegant variation for this phenomenon. The term may be seen in journalism if word variation, such as the replacement of the word "fire" with "blaze" or "conflagration", draws attention to itself. It is considered particularly problematic in legal writing, scientific writing, and other technical writing, where the avoidance of ambiguity is essential. Alternatives to synonymy include repetition and the use of pro-forms.
Bryan A. Garner in Garner's Modern American Usage proposes inelegant variation as a more appropriate name for the phenomenon, and asserts that, in coining the term elegant variation, Fowler was using elegant in a then-current pejorative sense of "excessively or pretentiously styled". Richard W. Bailey denies Garner's contention, suggesting that Fowler's use of elegant was a deliberate irony. Nevertheless, inelegant variation has been used by others, including Gerald Lebovits and Wayne Schiess.
In other languages
In French, purists consider the rule of elegant variation (that is, using synonyms wherever possible) essential for good style. A humorist imagined writing a news article about Gaston Defferre: "It's OK to say Defferre once, but not twice. So next you say the Mayor of Marseille. Then, the Minister of Planning. Then, the husband of Edmonde. Then, Gaston. Then, Gastounet and then ... · Well, then you stop talking about him because you don't know what to call him next."
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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 the passage because The Emperor, His Majesty, and the Monarch all refer to the same person: "The effect," he pointed out in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (first edition, p. 131, col. 2), "is to set readers wondering what the significance of the change is, only to conclude disappointedly that it has none."
- In The King's English (page 189), Fowler described a report of an art auction from the Westminster Gazette which, within twenty lines, described sales of pictures, using eleven synonyms for "sold for various sums" ("made, fetched, changed hands for, went for, produced, elicited, drew, fell at, accounted for, realized, were knocked down for"); also, it is not clear which of these words implied different success at the sale.
- Fowler also quoted: "At the sixth round, there were almost as many fellows shouting out 'Go it, Figs', as there were youths exclaiming 'Go it, Cuff'. — Thackeray." Were older men supporting Figs and teenagers supporting Cuff? Or not?
- Among sub-editors at The Guardian, "gratuitous synonyms" are called "povs", an acronym of "popular orange vegetables"—a phrase that was removed from the draft of an article about carrots in the Liverpool Echo. Charles W. Morton similarly wrote of an "elongated yellow fruit", a presumed synonym of "banana" that was used in the Boston Evening Transcript.
- Garner's Modern American Usage cites examples given by Morton, including "elongated yellow fruit" and others: billiard balls ("the numbered spheroids"); Bluebeard ("the azure-whiskered wifeslayer"); Easter-egg hunt ("hen-fruit safari"); milk ("lacteal fluid"); oysters ("succulent bivalves"); peanut ("the succulent goober"); songbird ("avian songster"); truck ("rubber-tired mastodon of the highway").
- In a BBC TV report in March 2005: (Kabul had just fallen): "... he brought a satellite [communications unit] in ... [the road was impassable to wheeled traffic, so] he broke [the unit] down and carried it on donkeys ... with his load on 35 mules ...". "Mule" and "donkey" were used as elegant-variation synonyms, although they are different animals.
- Another elegant variation nuisance can happen with dates: e.g., replacing "1947 ... 1963" with "1947 ... sixteen years later", which forces the reader to ferret back through the text for the previous date and then calculate the intended date. This can also cause ambiguity: "1947 [...] sixteen years later [...] twenty years later" may mean "1947 [...] 1963 [...] 1983" or "1947 [...] 1963 [...] 1967".
- In a World War II war news report printed in The Daily Telegraph on 20 June 1943, we read, "The King was refused admission to an R.A.F. station in North Africa by a sergeant who demanded identification papers. The N.C.O., however, quickly recognized his Majesty and permitted him to enter." It is not clear whether the sergeant and the N.C.O. are the same man.
- Confusion may result in cases which look like elegant variation but are not. For example:
- A newspaper sub-editor who was accustomed to replacing game with match to avoid repetition may make an error with tennis, where a game is not the same as a match. Similarly, in cricket a draw (game ran out of time) is not the same as a tie (game finished with the same number of runs for each side).
- In a local election for councillors, "Party A won" is not the same as "Party B lost", even if no third party had a chance of winning, because there is also the "hung condition", where no party has 50% or more of the seats.
- An example in classical literature is in Virgil's Georgics iii 151–519, describing ploughing with two yoked oxen; Virgil calls one of the two oxen "taurus" (bull) and the other "iuvencum" (bullock (accusative case)); was the ploughman ploughing with a bullock and an entire bull? Or is it merely elegant variation?
- Wimsatt, W. K. (January 1942). "When Is Variation 'Elegant'?". College English. 3 (4): 368–383. doi:10.2307/370772. ISSN 0010-0994. JSTOR 370772.
- Hart, Geoff J. (March 2000). "The style guide is "dead": long live the dynamic style guide!". Intercom: 12–17.
Although “elegant variation” (using synonyms and fancy language for the sake of variety) provides essential color and texture in creative writing, technical communicators generally avoid this form of elegance because popular consensus holds that such variation risks confusing less-sophisticated readers.
- Garner, Bryan A. (2009). Garner's Modern American Usage (3rd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. p. 462. ISBN 978-0-19-538275-4.
- Bailey, Richard W. (1999). "A Dictionary of Modern American Usage (review)". Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America. 20 (1): 151–155. doi:10.1353/dic.1999.0010. ISSN 2160-5076.
- Lebovits, Gerald (March–April 2010). "Persuasive Writing for Lawyers—Part II". New York State Bar Association Journal. 82 (3): 60.
Conversely, be aware of inelegant variation, in which a writer uses different words to mean the same thing. Inelegant variation confuses, whereas repetition has power
- Schiess, Wayne (July–August 2009). "You Can Use the Same Word Twice in the Identical Discussion". Austin Lawyer. Wayne: 6. SSRN 1444012.
- Paterson, Ann (2006). "Painting with words". In Eugenia Loffredo, Manuela Perteghella. Translation And Creativity: Perspectives on Creative Writing And Translation Studies. Continuum. p. 88. ISBN 0-8264-8793-9.
Elegant variation. French tends to avoid repetition of proper names, with a description of the person, at second reference.
- Fuller, Frederick (1984). The Translator's Handbook: (with special reference to conference translation from French and Spanish). Penn State University Press. p. 35. ISBN 0-271-00368-5.
- Sarraute, Claude (22 May 1985). "Bis repetita". Le Monde (in French). p. 48.; cited and translated in Thogmartin, Clyde (1987). Elegant variation in French newspaper style (PDF). Mid-America Linguistics Conference. pp. 294–303: 294. Retrieved 26 May 2017.
- Fowler, H.W.; Fowler, F.G. (1931). The King's English (3rd ed.). London: Oxford University Press. p. 187. ISBN 0-19-869105 X.
- "My synonym hell". Mind your language. The Guardian. 2 June 2010. Retrieved 30 September 2011.
- "The Press: Elongated Fruit". Time. 10 August 1953. Retrieved 30 September 2011.
- "Georgicon/Liber III - Wikisource". la.wikisource.org. Retrieved 22 October 2017.