Elegant Variation

https://www.wikiart.org/en/fyodor-vasilyev/poplars-lit-by-the-sun

Fyodor Vasilyev, Poplars Lit by the Sun

By the house grows a poplar. Each spring its branches shoot for the sky, eager to extend the tree’s rocket-shape.

Try writing a third sentence about the poplar.

Did your sentence use poplar or tree? Did you feel clumsy having to repeat a prominent word that was already used? Or perhaps you went for an unambiguous application of the pronoun (Its roots dig further down into the gravely earth …)? What would you do for a fourth or fifth sentence?

If you’re wondering why word-variation matters, consider the example without it:

By the house grows a tree. Each spring the tree’s branches shoot for the sky, eager to extend the tree’s bullet-shape.

Aside from losing the specificity, we’ve lost a solid, well-formed image to the inane hammering of a word.

You usually notice that you’ve referred to something in the same way across multiple consecutive sentences during a rereading of a draft. Then comes the question of substitutes. My example above is fairly prototypical for common nouns: there is at least one other word which can serve you immediately (poplar) and one pronoun you can seize on (it). If those are not enough, then the problem lies with uniform (and therefore uninteresting) sentence structure, and it’s a matter of reworking from the elements up.

https://www.wikiart.org/en/theodore-rousseau/not_detected_198954

Theodore Rousseau, Landscape with poplars (c. 1833)

I happen to have chosen a tree for my example, but I could have chosen a proper noun, a verb, or any other part of speech. According to Lukeman in his First Five Pages, this problem of echoes occurs most commonly when a character’s name is repeated often, when pronouns are substituted but they too are frequent, or when an unusual word is used multiple times (e.g. if I now said I had rocket salad for lunch, you might wonder how this is related to the shape of poplars).

So what is a writer to do between the poplar and the tree, and the frequent repetition of it?

Rephrase if you can, leave some repetition if you can’t. And, unless you’re writing a scientific text or an arch blog post, never-ever reach for Populus tremula. That’s what Fowler’s would call (sarcastically) elegant variation. 

elegant variation. Laboured avoidance of repetition.

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.

This advice has its uses, Fowler’s admits, it reminds us of pronouns, which relieve monotony, and warns against echoing rockets meaning different things. However, it does lead to the problem of the Populus tremula.

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. Mr John Redmond has just now a path to tread even more thorny than that which Mr. Asquith has to walk.

Fowler’s message is sound, even if his example may appear laughably unsubtle.

Let me try to produce the subtlety.

https://www.wikiart.org/en/t-c-steele/the-poplars-1914

T. C. Steele, The Poplars (1914)

No manufactured mistake has that special legitimacy of one caught red-handed, even still—unlike Fowler’s—I’m loth to hunt bad prose in the wild. The following tailored passage exhibits the same issues.

Three kids were eyeing the wall. The first, a tall girl in a red shorts, vaulted over the wall. The second, a short girl in a tight blue blazer, couldn’t get over the wall so she braved the creaking, rickety gate and walked through. The third, a boy in football gear, decided it wasn’t worth missing practice to trespass in their teacher’s back garden. He spat at the wall, then walked away.

The persistent wall is problematic. The triple parallel sentence structure is deliberately in place to discourage impulsive rephrasing, whilst emphasising the repetition.

One option is to replace wall with it.

Three kids were eyeing the wall. The first, a tall girl in a red shorts, vaulted over it. The second, a short girl in a tight blue blazer, couldn’t get over it so she braved the creaking, rickety gate and walked through. The third, a boy in football gear, decided it wasn’t worth missing practice to trespass in their teacher’s back garden. He spat at it, then walked away.

Whilst the first it is plausible, the other two are not:

  • The second it could be mistaken for part of the phrasal verb to get over something.
  • The third it takes back garden as the most obvious antecedent, therefore altering the meaning.

The next option is to reach for a thesaurus.

Three kids were eyeing the wall. The first, a tall girl in a red shorts, vaulted over the hurdle. The second, a short girl in a tight blue blazer, couldn’t get over the barrier so she braved the creaking, rickety gate and walked through. The third, a boy in football gear, decided it wasn’t worth missing practice to trespass in their teacher’s back garden. He spat at the hedge, then walked away.

This is better: no obvious repetitions, no unclear antecedents. Hurdle works in the context, but elsewhere trouble still lurks.

  • Barrier feels like a synonym for hurdle. To fine-tune this “feeling” one could look for other warning signs that laboured avoidance is at play: consider the double over. As a preposition, over is less prominent than a noun or a verb or a descriptor, but its presence can indicate a recurring relationship, and to the reader it subconsciously signals that the noun it governs should be the same. So when the reader sees over the hurdle but get over the barrier it smacks of Fowler’s tread vs. walk.
  • Lastly, hedge isn’t wall. In fiction, this sliding of meaning for the sake of word-variation is a writer’s prerogative, as long as the sentence achieves its purpose regardless. Here the strictures imposed by my parallel construction discourage the change.

Finally, the option that I would deem good enough to pass to another draft simplifies the phrase get over the barrier, and allows for a repeated wall.

Three kids were eyeing the wall. The first, a tall girl in a red shorts, vaulted over the hurdle. The second, a short girl in a tight blue blazer, couldn’t do that get over the barrier so she braved the creaking, rickety gate and walked through. The third, a boy in football gear, decided it wasn’t worth missing practice to trespass in their teacher’s back garden. He spat at the wall, then walked away.

I can now admit that the double over was a genuine feature of my original sentences—I hadn’t implanted it, and I only noticed it after I’d reached for the thesaurus and was figuring out further improvements.

For me this is a stark reminder that even when given infinite latitude to conjure up a few lines I fail to produce “clean” prose. Who knows what else I missed! (Forests hide well amongst the trees.)

That’s why there’s always yet another draft.

 


This post is part of a series about the second (1968) edition of Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H. W. Fowler, as revised by Sir Ernest Gowers.

  1. Prefer the Obvious to its Obvious Avoidance: On density of style, and where to find advice on style.
  2. Every Chance of Going Wrong: On various writing pitfalls.
  3. It Is True That Words Are Cheap: On synonymia, tautology, circumlocution, pleonasm, meaningless words, and pairs of commonly confused words.
  4. Does It Come off?: On verbless sentences.
  5. Elegant Variation

 

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