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Elegant variation is a phrase coined by Henry Watson Fowler referring to the unnecessary use of synonyms to denote a single thing. In A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926) he says:

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 1920s, when Fowler coined the term "elegant variation", the word elegant had a since-lost pejorative connotation of “precious over-refinement”. In The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style, Bryan Garner unambiguously renamed the term inelegant variation.


In The King's English (1908)[1], Fowler 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."[2]

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 particularly problematic in legal, scientific, and technical writing, where avoiding ambiguity is important.

  • 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".
  • Another bad example in a newspaper was "the red-headed non-driver" to avoid repeating the name "Mrs. Thatcher".
  • 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?
  • Fowler described an article in the Westminster Gazette which, in 20 lines describing a sale of pictures, used eleven apparent synonyms for 'sold for x amount of money'; some of those synonyms may have implied varying success at the sale, some not.
  • 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 ...": with "mule" and "donkey" used as elegant-variation synonyms although they are different sorts of animals.
  • Another elegant variation nuisance can happen with dates: e.g. replacing "1947 [...] 1963" by "1947 [...] sixteen years later", forcing the reader to ferret back through the text for the previous date, and then do arithmetic to find the date. This can also cause ambiguity: "1947 [...] sixteen years later [...] twenty years later" may mean "1947 [...] 1963 [...] 1983" or "1947 [...] 1963 [...] 1967".
  • Confusion can result in cases that look like elegant variation but are not, for example:
    • A newspaper sub-editor accustomed to replacing "game" by "match" or "bout" to avoid word repeats may get into error with tennis where a game is not the same as a match; likewise in cricket a draw (game ran out of time) is not the same as a tie (game finished, same number of runs each).
    • In a local election for councillors, "Party A won" is not the same as "Party B lost", even if no other participating parties had hope of winning, because there also is the "hung" condition where no one party has 50% or more of the seats.

In poetry

Elegant variation in poetry occurs by the poet’s ad-hoc need to find a word fitting the scansion and rhyme patterns of the poem.

In other languages

Whereas elegant variation in English prose is thought excessive, in other languages — French and Sanskrit, for example — it might be thought good writing style. [3][4]

See also


  • Elegant Variation — Fowler's discussion of elegant variation in The King's English (1908)
  1. ^ Henry Fowler, Frank Fowler, Matthew Parris (Introduction). The King's English (Oxford Language Classics Series). Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-860507-2.
  2. ^ Fowler, Henry . W. and F. G. (1930), The King's English (3rd edition ed.), Wordsworth (publisher), ISBN 1-85326-304-4  
  3. ^ 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 0826487939. ". . . the rule of elegant variation (that is, using synonyms wherever possible), which purists consider to be essential for good style in French."  
  4. ^ Fuller, Frederick (1984). The Translator's Handbook: (with special reference to conference translation from French and Spanish). Penn State University Press. p. 35. ISBN 0271003685. "Elegant variation French tends to avoid repetition of proper names, with a description of the person, at second reference."  


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