OK, OK: repetition isn’t always a no-no

Repetition at its cutestRepetition isn’t a dirty word. I repeat: repetition isn’t a dirty word. But some of the tricks we use to avoid it are positively vulgar, writes Richard Smyth.

We’re quite happy, it seems, to repeat ourselves when our intention is rhetorical – when our priority is emphasis, emphasis, emphasis. And yet when repetition is required for the purpose of clarity, we shy away. We become embarrassed by what feels like clumsiness, and resort to ‘elegant variation’ – the desperate attempt to avoid using the same word more than once.

Repetition can indeed sometimes seem clumsy; no-one wants to read: ‘Our business is a business that is considered one of the world’s best businesses.’

The problem is that the cure is very often as bad as the disease. Does anyone, after all, really want to read: ‘Our business is a firm that is considered one of the world’s best companies’?

In a famous essay, the grammarian HW Fowler described elegant variation as the preserve of ‘second-rate writers’, but that’s not quite fair; it’s a trap anyone can fall into.

You might, for example, find examples in the blurb on the back of a posh restaurant menu. What appears in the first paragraph as ‘good food’ will be revisited in the second as ‘fine dining’, in the third as ‘top-end cuisine’ and in the fourth – as the writer urgently thumbs through their thesaurus – as, say, ‘elite nutriment’.

News stories are another rich source. It’s the pursuit of elegant variation that has resulted – to quote two real-life examples – in former Tesco chief executive Terry Leahy being labelled ‘the blue-and-white-striped king’ and the banana ‘the curvy yellow favourite’. Sub-editors at the Guardian have even created a tongue-in-cheek quiz out of journalists’ attempts to avoid repetition.

Fowler gave a further example: ‘From one great dinner for 20 covers to another of eighteen guests.’ Here, ‘covers’ and ‘guests’ are supposed to have exactly the same meaning. But the use of two different words is confusing for the reader, who ends up wondering if the two words in fact have subtly different meanings. So why not just use ‘guests’ (or ‘covers’) twice? Fear of repetition.

In this case, there’s an easy way out for those unable to overcome their repetition phobia: simply leave out the second noun. I did the same a couple of paragraphs ago. ‘Labelled’, you’ll see, did the job for both Terry Leahy and the bananas; I could have said that the bananas had been ‘called’ or (another news-speak favourite) ‘dubbed’, but it would have been unnecessary, and might have seemed ambiguous.

There’s another obvious way of avoiding the problem of repetition, but this, too, is often something modern writers are cautious of: the pronoun. For many English speakers – particularly in business – the personal pronoun (‘me’, ‘you’, ‘he’) has come to seem distressingly direct. Remember the last time you were on a train, and the guard urged passengers to ‘ask myself’ if you had any problems?

There’s nothing wrong with using ‘I’, ‘he’, or ‘she’ (subjective), ‘me’, ‘him’ or ‘her’ (objective). It’s not ill-mannered or unrefined – and writing ‘he said’, for instance, is certainly far less silly than ‘the blue-and-white-striped king said’.

People writing for the web have a more practical reason for fearing repetition. Search engines such as Google will often filter out duplicate content from their searches – effectively treating it as spam. Bad news for the writer with one eye on SEO, right?

But actually, as Google’s Matt Cutts explained recently, a website that repeats content for usability reasons won’t be penalised in its search-engine rankings.

‘I really wouldn’t get stressed out about the notion that you might have a little bit of duplicate content,’ the California-based webspam boffin he said.

So there’s no need to confuse your customers by talking about your ‘24-hour rush’ service on one page, your ‘one-day turnaround’ on another, and your ‘overnight despatch’ on another.

As with most problems in writing, it really isn’t too difficult to strike an appropriate balance between repetition and variation. It’s just a question of thinking about the words you use, and asking yourself why you’re using them.

If you’re running up against a lot of repetition, maybe vocabulary isn’t the real problem; maybe it’s the ideas behind the words that are in need of variation. If the same words keep springing to your pen, it might be because you’re trying to say the same thing too many times. Remember, if you’ve told them once, you don’t need to keep telling them. Duplication of information might not fall foul of Google, but all the elegant variation in the world won’t conceal it from your readers.

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