Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Some things are worth repeating (and others aren’t)

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Can't Repeat

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Repetition is not necessarily a Bad Thing.

Some writers think that repeating the same word is to be avoided at all costs, but that’s not so. Very often, the linguistic gymnastics involved render a piece of writing inelegant and amateurish.

David Sexton, writing in the London Evening Standard, provides a brilliant example of the strained effect that arises from trying, unnecessarily, to avoid repetition. In his piece he quotes a well-known UK broadcaster, Melvyn Bragg, several times. At various junctures, according to Sexton, Bragg ‘argues’, ‘says’, ‘contends’, ‘complains’, ‘thinks’ and ‘wonders’.

Hmmm, could Bragg not have opined, expounded, expressed and expatiated as well?

Sexton should have just ditched all the fancy words along with his thesaurus and used ‘says’ throughout. The reading eye glides easily over this type of repetition and does not become distracted by a steadily mounting pile of synonyms strewn about the page.

On the other hand…

Look at this from the After Deadline column in The New York Times:

Mr. Paladino may have low approval ratings downstate. But to some residents around Buffalo, Mr. Paladino, a prominent local real estate developer, is a hometown hero. High turnout in Erie County, where Buffalo is, helped Mr. Paladino win the Republican primary.

As the column points out, a pronoun or two would have spared readers the jarring repetition of Mr Paladino’s surname in three consecutive sentences.

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4 Responses

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  1. Good advice.

    Re. the second half of your post, and as the American journo, William Safire, said:

    If you re-read your work, you can find on re-reading a great deal of repetition can be avoided by re-reading and editing.

    Lizi Brown

    15/04/2011 at 10:13 am

    • Hi, Lizi – thanks for reminding me about Safire’s rules! Here is the full list:

      1. Remember to never split an infinitive.
      2. The passive voice should never be used.
      3. Do not put statements in the negative form.
      4. Verbs has to agree with their subjects.
      5. Proofread carefully to see if you words out.
      6. If you reread your work, you can find on rereading a great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
      7. A writer must not shift your point of view.
      8. And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.(Remember, too, a preposition is a terrible word to end a sentence with.)
      9. Don’t overuse exclamation marks!!
      10. Place pronouns as close as possible, especially in long sentences, as of 10 or more words, to their antecedents.
      11. Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided.
      12. If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
      13. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors.
      14. Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
      15. Everyone should be careful to use a singular pronoun with singular nouns in their writing.
      16. Always pick on the correct idiom.
      17. The adverb always follows the verb.
      18. Last but not least, avoid clichés like the plague; seek viable alternatives.

      Deborah

      15/04/2011 at 10:20 am

  2. I love Safire’s rules.

    In the case of the After Deadline piece, I could see leaving Paladino’s name in the first two times if the intent was to inject a tone of irony or comedy, and use “him” the third time. Paladino’s an amusing name. It’s funnier when repeated.

    Invisible Mikey

    15/04/2011 at 4:51 pm

    • Hi, Mikey — yes, the Safire rules are very clever.

      You’re right about repetition being used for ironic or comedic effect. In this case, I expect the journalist was in a hurry — I think the excerpt would have to be recast to get in the bit about him being a real estate developer without repeating his name the second time. Rewriting can be surprisingly tricky, especially when deadlines are looming. Here’s my attempt, which isn’t brilliant:

      Mr. Paladino, a prominent local real estate developer, may have low approval ratings downstate, but to some residents around Buffalo he is a hometown hero. High turnout in Erie County, where Buffalo is, helped him win the Republican primary.

      Deborah

      15/04/2011 at 5:58 pm


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