The Language Perfectionist: Is Elegant Variation Bad?

Consider the following, all of which I found in a major newspaper. What’s the common problem?

• “In a story that could be straight out of a Flannery O’Connor short story…”

• “Microsoft… is able to use its money to put on a great show at the Consumer Electronics Show…”

• “One thing Mr. Rosenbluth won’t relinquish is his annual black-tie cattle drive (so named for the black-tie-and-cowboy-boots dinner at the end of the event).”

• “The 10-day program visits Cambridge, England, and Russia, retracing the steps of the Cambridge Spies, a group of Soviet spies who attended Cambridge University.”

You’re right. Each one repeats a word in a manner that’s awkward and clunky.

How could these passages have been written instead? Some possibilities: “In a tale”; “put on a great event”; “formal-dress-and-cowboy-boots dinner”; “a group of Soviet agents.”

H.W. Fowler (1858-1933), a legendary language expert, cautioned against what he called – not approvingly – “elegant variation.” He scolded writers who strain for a different word just to avoid repetition. A classic example: following “He said” with “He stated,” “He averred,” and so on.

Fowler had a point, but he seems to have overlooked the fact that variation can be a good thing. The repetitions in the above examples are obvious, heavy-handed, and… inelegant. When we substitute appropriate synonyms, the passages are stylistically superior.

To find the right synonym, keep a thesaurus handy. But remember that synonyms are not interchangeable. A writer must understand the nuances of each word.

Some thesauri are available free online. But for decades, I’ve relied on The New American Roget’s College Thesaurus in Dictionary Form. I give this volume so much use that every few years I have to replace my worn-out copy.

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book recently published by AWAI that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]


Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.