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elegant variation


elegant variation

A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 2nd ed., by Henry W. Fowler and Ernest Gowers (Oxford University Press, 1965)


A phrase coined by Henry W. Fowler in The King's English (1906) and used again in Modern English Usage (1926) to refer to the excessive use of synonyms to mean a single thing.

See also:

Examples and Observations:

  • "In descriptive mode, [Dan] Brown composes real estate listings. The villain inhabits a 'sprawling mansion,' which in an elegant variation 300 pages later is called a 'spectacular mansion.'"
    (Peter Conrad, "The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown." The Guardian, Sep. 20, 2009)

  • Fowler on Elegant Variation
    "It is the second-rate writers, those intent rather on expressing themselves prettily than on conveying their meaning clearly . . ., 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. The advice has its uses; it reminds any who may be in danger of forgetting it that there are such things as pronouns, the substitution of which relieves monotony. . . . The advice also gives a useful warning that a noticeable word used once should not be used again in the neighbourhood with a different application. . . .

    "These, however, are mere pieces of gross carelessness . . .. Diametrically opposed to them are sentences in which the writer, far from carelessly repeating a word in a different application, has carefully not repeated it in a similar application. The effect is to set readers wondering what the significance of the change is, only to conclude disappointingly that it has none. The Bohemian Diet will be the second Parliament to elect women deputies, for Sweden already has several lady deputies. / There are a not inconsiderable number of employers who appear to hold the same opinion, but certain owners--notably those of South Wales--hold a contrary view to this. . . What has Bohemia done that its females should be mere women? Are owners subject to influences that do not affect employers?"
    (Henry W. Fowler and Ernest Gowers, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press, 1965)

  • Inelegant Variation
    "H.W. Fowler devised the name 'elegant variation' for the ludicrous practice of never using the same word twice in the same sentence. When Fowler named this vice of language in the 1920s, elegant was almost a pejorative word, commonly associated with precious overrefinement. Today, however, the word has positive connotations. E.g.: 'The book is exceedingly well edited, and several essays are elegantly written."

    "Lest the reader think that the subject of this article is a virtue rather than a vice in writing, it has been renamed unambiguously: inelegant variation. The rule of thumb with regard to undue repetition is that one should not repeat a word in the same sentence if it can be felicitously avoided; this is hardly an absolute proscription however."
    (Bryan A. Garner, The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style. Oxford Univ. Press, 2000)

  • POV ("Popular Orange Vegetable")
    "Pov [is] a term coined by a Guardian journalist to depict laboured attempts to produce synonyms by writers seeking what Fowler called 'elegant variation' (and Orwell 'inelegant variation'), often descending into cliche or absurdity. Thus Dali becomes 'the moustachioed surrealist' and Ireland 'the cockatoo-shaped landmass.' Pov, incidentally, stands for 'popular orange vegetable.'"
    (David Marsh and Amelia Hodsdon, Guardian Style, 3rd ed. Guardian Books, 2010)

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