7 Sentences Energized by Elegant Variation

By Mark Nichol

In one of the most recent tugs-of-war between qualitative practice and quantitative practicality, search engine optimization has been eroding the exalted status of time-honored elegant variation, the convention of avoiding wearying repetition of words throughout a sentence or a passage.

One of the principles of SEO, the suite of strategies for shaping online content to enhance its searchability, is that keywords, when repeated, strengthen the likelihood that a search will call up a particular piece of content. But let’s not allow that admittedly valid goal to be so scrupulously employed as to deaden the language. Here are some repetition-riddled sentences followed by elegant fixes:

1. “Finding a job at 55 is much harder than finding a job in your 40s.”

Sentences like this aren’t wrong; they’re just a bit flat, and it doesn’t take much to pep them up a bit: “Finding a job at 55 is much harder than landing one in your 40s.”

2. “There’s a preponderance of knowledge workers working as contract workers.”

Save some work with synonyms: “There’s a preponderance of knowledge workers employed as contractors.”

3. “The company is launching a new shelter magazine aimed at women in their 30s, while American Media is developing a shelter magazine for women in their 20s and 30s.”

Two pairs of duplicate usage spiff up this sentence: “The company is launching a new shelter magazine aimed at thirtysomething women, while American Media is developing a home-themed title for those in their 20s and 30s.”

4. “New Jersey’s cops stopped doing consent searches, in which a cop asks a driver for permission to search the driver’s vehicle.”

That sentence sports a tired trifecta. Not only is repetition of cop a cop-out, but it doesn’t take much effort to search for another word for search and summon the drive to replace a repeat of drive: “New Jersey’s cops stopped doing consent searches, in which a police officer asks a driver for permission to look around in the motorist’s vehicle.”

5. “He said he was afraid to listen to President Bush’s speech because he was “afraid Bush would announce he was going to repeal the Fourteenth Amendment.”

I’m afraid that the reappearance of afraid is diminished by its previous use: “He said he was reluctant to listen to President Bush’s speech because he was “afraid Bush would announce he was going to repeal the Fourteenth Amendment.”

6. “Administrators requested waivers for regular students, special-education students, adult students, and students in continuation schools.”

Send this writer back to school to come up with some other words for students: “Administrators requested waivers for regular students, special-education pupils, adult learners, and kids in continuation schools.

7. “When Brubeck chauffeured Milhaud, who didn’t drive, to the 1947 premiere, the composer drove the young musician to, as he said, ‘be true to your instincts’ and ‘sound like who you really are.’”

Oh, my. The writer deftly employed chauffeured to achieve elegant variation in the literal sense of operating a car but then crashed farther down the road. Using two meanings of the same word (or even separate tense inflections) is a collision of comprehension: “When Brubeck chauffeured Milhaud, who didn’t drive, to the 1947 premiere, the composer pushed the young musician to, as he said, ‘be true to your instincts’ and ‘sound like who you really are.’”

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


7 Responses to “7 Sentences Energized by Elegant Variation”

  • Rebecca

    Today, most writers concentrate on writing SEO articles to increase traffic to their website or a publication’s website. Thank you for reminding us how to write sentences that incorporate SEO but are ‘energized’ at the same time.

  • Bradlee TheDawg

    Frankly, the ‘fix’ for some of these is not much better than the original. I don’t have time to re-write all of them here.

  • Kathryn

    I agree with 2, 5 & 7; I would rewrite 1: “It is much harder finding a job at 55 than in your 40s.”

    The other three give me pause. This may in part be because my primary writing is as a lawyer, and in legal writing elegant variation can have unfortunate consequences. If you refer to the same thing using two different names, it isn’t clear from the face of the document that only one thing is referred to. This can create an awkward uncertainty, especially when it occurs in a will which is not subjected to interpretation until the speaker is dead, and no longer able to tell the court what she meant.

    I think 3 works, assuming that you have already established in the rest of the article that “shelter magazine” means “home-themed magazine.” But 4, even as rewritten, is awkward and clunky. I’m not sure what I would do to improve it, as that would again depend on context, but I think I’d start over and write a wholly different sentence.

    Number 6? Eeeek! I know there are those here who will deplore this advice as PC, but. . .one does not refer to “regular” students, thus implying that students with disabilities (“special education students”) are not regular; it is probably safe to refer to the regular education program, however, as both disabled and non-disabled students can be participants in that. Further if, as seems probable, continuation school enrollees are in their late teens, calling them “kids” is questionable. So, how about “Administrators requested waivers for four groups: students in both the regular and the special education programs, adult learners, and those enrolled in continuation schools.”

  • Mark Nichol

    Kathryn:

    Yes, this strategy is not useful in legal or legislative contexts, for the reasons you provide, but it is eminently valid for enriching content in general.

    I acknowledge that it’s sometimes difficult to rewrite these sentences when they’re presented out of context, but the point is not whether you are able to come up with elegant variations for the specific samples on display; they’re illustrative of the issue at large.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of example 6 and thank you for offering a better revision.

  • Kathryn

    Mark: you’re welcome. And I recognize the value of elegant variation–when it truly is elegant; like any rhetorical device, it is best used sparingly and thoughtfully. This is not in any way aimed at you or your examples–but there are authors who use it like a spray gun, and their work suffers. There are so many ways of rewriting any sentence. . .

  • Ken

    Man, that’s a tough crowd. They won’t let you get away with much, they’ll fight you for every dime. Brave or foolish or both one must be to write at all. . . . But that’s why I like this site.

  • pentamom

    On #7, “drove” in the second instance is a weak usage to begin with, since the connotation of “drove” is more like “effectively induced in an undesirable or uncomfortable manner,” as in “he drove me to drink” or “the teacher drove us to excel by her high standards.” It’s not really a good word to use when referring to an initial act of encouragement, rather than a reflection on the outcome of the encouragement.

    On #4, “permission to search a vehicle” works better than inserting the clunky “motorist,” which sounds like journalistese rather than really good writing. If anyone thinks that ambiguity is created, that you might be asking a driver to search someone else’s vehicle because you don’t specifically indicate that it’s his, that person is hunting for ambiguity where common sense does not find any.

Leave a comment: