Did you ever have an English teacher tell you not to use the same word twice in a paragraph? If so, he or she was encouraging you to use “elegant variation,” a practice as misguided as the ban on starting a sentence with a conjunction.
Elegant variation occurs when a writer uses synonyms simply to avoid repeating the same word. Here’s an extreme example:
Bananas are a good source of potassium. Eating this elongated yellow fruit can also provide you with Vitamin C.
A less extreme example:
Four of the defendant’s witnesses were women, while all of the plaintiff’s witnesses were ladies.
Charles W. Morton—humorist, author, and long-time editor of The Atlantic Monthly—wrote that the problem with elegant variation “lies somewhere between the cliché and the ‘fine writing’ so dreaded by teachers of English Composition. … It does bespeak an author who wishes to seem knowledgeable, and versatile. … It can also bespeak an author who is merely pompous.”
Varying word choice can be a good thing, but not if it interferes with comprehension. And not if it calls attention to itself with awkward phrasing:
We stopped for ice cream on the way home from school. My son loves the stuff, while my daughter has never liked this frozen, sweet dessert.
If your goal is to avoid repetition, use the thesaurus sparingly. The synonyms listed in a thesaurus often have different shades of meaning and cannot always be used to replace each other. “Group,” “club,” and “clique” do not mean the same thing. “Interested” is not the same as “nosy.” I would rather be called “confident” than “conceited.”
A better solution may be to rewrite or restructure the sentence or paragraph.
Bananas are a good source of potassium. Eating them can also provide you with Vitamin C.
Four of the defendant’s witnesses were women, while all of the witnesses for the plaintiff were women.
We stopped for ice cream on the way home from school. My son loves ice cream, but my daughter has never liked it.
These may not be the most elegant solutions, but remember the adage “If you are out to describe truth, leave elegance to the tailor.”
Readers, do you have any examples of elegant variation to share?