or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Not Again

Wise old Henry Fowler rightly despised what he called "elegant variation", in which a writer, terrified of repetition, will crack open the thesaurus and use, in subsequent clauses or sentences, "automobile" and then "vehicle" and perhaps in desperation "conveyance" instead of "car".

There's nothing wrong with a certain degree of repetition in good English, though it has to be carefully balanced so as not to give the impression of a limited vocabulary: you may need to repeat a noun, but you don't usually want to use the same adjective three times in one sentence (unless repetition is in the service of a specific stylistic end such as anaphora or epizeuxis).

What is most irritating about elegant variation isn't its mere existence: it's when a writer uses it and gets the variant wrong. Here's the headline and sub-head from a recent Salon television column:

The headline, "So your marriage is like an inflamed bunion", is followed by "Whose isn't? On 'The Good Wife' and 'Dexter,' rotten betrothals make for great drama".

A betrothal is not a marriage. A betrothal is a promise to marry: to plight your troth (etymologically related to "truth", which is to say in this case "fidelity", being true to someone) means that you will pledge faithfulness to the one you intend to marry. After a period of engagement, you presumably wed that person, and then the marriage ensues. Whoever wrote that sub-head didn't want to use the word "marriage" again, so they hunted around for a word that seemed to mean the same thing, and flubbed it.

I'm pretty sure the writer, Heather Havrilesky, isn't the one at fault here, because writers don't often write their own headlines and less often the sub-heads and such flotsam. But someone at Salon is to blame. As usual.


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