The circumlocution of the ineffable: elegant variation and dark matter

Scientists investigating dark matter may have shed light on a contentious mystery.

‘Elegant variation’ is when a writer avoids repeating a word or phrase by substituting synonyms. The aim may be to avoid clunky repetition but the effect is more likely to be self-conscious ornateness and potential confusion as the reader tries to keep up with the changes.

While repetition can be awkward, the best solution is usually pronouns. And repetition can be powerful. Here’s an elegantly varied version of Churchill, which lacks a certain something:

We shall fight on the beaches, we shall clash on the landing grounds, we shall do battle in the fields and in the streets, we shall engage in combat in the hills; we shall never surrender.

The people most tempted by elegant variation are journalists. A journalist at the Liverpool Echo once notoriously wrote “popular orange vegetables” to avoid repeating “carrots”, and one at the Boston Transcript once followed “banana” with “elongated yellow fruit”.

But why particularly journalists? There are two theories: one is that their profession is rife with “second-rate writers”, as Henry Fowler put it, who are “intent rather on expressing themselves prettily than on conveying their meaning clearly”, and “whose notions of style are based on a few misleading rules of thumb”.

The second theory is more charitable: that journalists are trying to cram as much information as possible into limited space. Using terms such as “the French President”, “the former Mayor of Tulle”, “the socialist tax-raiser” and “the unpopular incumbent” to identify François Hollande on separate mentions across a few paragraphs of a story gives the reader more facts about him without using precious words in directly stating these facts.

I have my doubts about the second theory (its approach risks confusing readers who don’t already know these facts, while those who do know them don’t need them), but there it is.

And there the debate has stood, until scientists searching for dark matter produced a fascinating finding. (Dark matter is thought to make up most of the mass of the universe but has thus far proved impossible to detect, so incredibly little is known about it.)

Their work was covered by a piece on the BBC News website. This presents ideal test conditions: it’s online, so a lack of column inches isn’t a factor, and because so little is known about dark matter, squeezing in extra facts isn’t a factor either. According to the second theory, there would be no need for elegant variation, while the first theory would predict empty rhetorical flourishes in place of the term “dark matter”.

The following observations were made:

… dark matter … this enigmatic cosmic constituent … the elusive particles … this mysterious component …

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  • Stan  On April 4, 2013 at 9:24 am

    Print habits can carry over to online contexts, so Fowler’s uncharitable suggestion may still apply.

    Either way, I’m going to adopt “this enigmatic cosmic constituent” for referring to just about anything from now on: this mug of tea, the cat in the garden, etc.

    • Doc  On April 4, 2013 at 5:16 pm

      Referring to the cat as “enigmatic cosmic constituent” is apt!

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