Elegant variation is a term coined by Henry Watson Fowler (1858–1933). It refers to the unnecessary use of synonyms to denote a single thing. In his Dictionary of Modern English Usage (first edition, 1926), Fowler wrote:
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.... There are few literary faults so widely prevalent, & this book will not have been written in vain if the present article should heal any sufferer of his infirmity.
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;... It also gives a useful warning that a noticeable word used once should not be used again in the neighbourhood with a different application.
In the 1920s, when Fowler coined the term "elegant variation," the word elegant had a pejorative connotation of “precious over-refinement”. In Garner's Modern American Usage, Bryan Garner unambiguously recast the term as "inelegant variation."
Elegant variation is very common in modern journalism, where, for example, a "fire" often becomes a "blaze" or a "conflagration" with no clear justification. It is considered particularly problematic in legal, scientific, and technical writing, where the avoidance of ambiguity is essential.
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.
Fowler objected to the passage because The Emperor, His Majesty, and the Monarch all refer to the same person: "The effect," he pointed out in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (first edition, p.131, col. 2), "is to set readers wondering what the significance of the change is, only to conclude disappointedly that it has none."
- In The King's English (page 189), Fowler described a report of an art auction from the Westminster Gazette which, within twenty lines, described sales of pictures, using eleven synonyms for "sold for various sums" ("made, fetched, changed hands for, went for, produced, elicited, drew, fell at, accounted for, realized, were knocked down for"); also, it is not clear which of these words implied different success at the sale.
- Among sub-editors at The Guardian, "gratuitous synonyms" are called "povs," an acronym of "popular orange vegetables" — a phrase that was removed from the draft of an article about carrots in the Liverpool Echo. Charles W. Morton similarly wrote of an "elongated yellow fruit," a presumed synonym of "banana" that was used in the Boston Evening Transcript.
- 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 ..." Mule" and "donkey" were used as elegant-variation synonyms, although they are different sorts of animal.
- Another elegant variation nuisance can happen with dates: e.g., replacing "1947 ... 1963" with "1947 ... sixteen years later," which forces the reader to ferret back through the text for the previous date and then calculate the intended date. This can also cause ambiguity: "1947 [...] sixteen years later [...] twenty years later" may mean "1947 [...] 1963 [...] 1983" or "1947 [...] 1963 [...] 1967".
- In a World War II war news report printed in the The Daily Telegraph on 20 June 1943, we read "The King was refused admission to an R.A.F. station in North Africa by a sergeant who demanded identification papers. The N.C.O., however, quickly recognized his Majesty and permitted him to enter." It is unclear whether the sergeant and the N.C.O. are the same man.
- Confusion may result in cases which look like elegant variation but are not. For example:
- A newspaper sub-editor who was accustomed to replacing game with match to avoid repetition, may get into error with tennis, where a game is not the same as a match. Similarly, in cricket a draw (game ran out of time) is not the same as a tie (game finished with the same number of runs for each side).
- In a local election for councillors, "Party A won" is not the same as "Party B lost," even if no third party had a chance of winning, because there is also the "hung condition," where no party has 50% or more of the seats.
In other languages
- Fowler, H.W. (2009). David Crystal, ed. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 130–131. ISBN 978-0-19-953534-7. (A reprint of the 1926 edition.)
- Garner, Bryan A. (2009). Garner's Modern American Usage (3rd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. p. 298. ISBN 978-0-19-538275-4.
- Fowler, H.W.; Fowler, F.G. (1931). The King's English (3rd ed.). London: Oxford University Press. p. 187. ISBN 0-19-869105 X.
- "My synonym hell". Mind your language. The Guardian. 2 June 2010. Retrieved 30 September 2011.
- "The Press: Elongated Fruit". Time. 10 August 1953. Retrieved 30 September 2011.
- 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 0-8264-8793-9. "... the rule of elegant variation (that is, using synonyms wherever possible), which purists consider to be essential for good style in French."
- Fuller, Frederick (1984). The Translator's Handbook: (with special reference to conference translation from French and Spanish). Penn State University Press. p. 35. ISBN 0-271-00368-5. "Elegant variation. French tends to avoid repetition of proper names, with a description of the person, at second reference."