Repetition Redux

Photo courtesy of Rusty Clark

The other day, my colleague Ben Yagoda wrote about “elegant variation”—that is, the way writers sometimes strain to avoid the repeated use of a mundane word. He had fun with the colorful terms invented by sports writers in particular. It’s clear to me, however, that all kinds of writers feel the compulsion to avoid repeating words when they write.

The English language, after all, has a great many words in it. (Having my photo on the wall here with professional linguists, I feel qualified to say that.) Maybe it’s the abundance of available words that has something to do with our low tolerance for overusing any given one.

I’m not talking about the repeated use of common words that barely register, even in quantity, like the or words. What I’m getting at here is how some perfectly ordinary words or phrases distract us when they appear more than once or twice in proximity. The less common the word, the fewer occurrences it takes for us to notice its repetition and think poorly of the writer. Some flashy words can appear without annoying us if they are chapters apart or any time the repetition is purposeful. But try to put a word like decidedly or obnoxious or hackle twice on one page, and you will feel an urge to change one of them. In the most extreme cases, a word cannot bear repeating even once in an entire book—no matter the length—without embarrassing the writer. A good writer will not repeat a word like subcutaneously.* Or Gandalfesque.**

In book publishing, there is one stage at which an author’s tweaks and edits are visible to the copy editor: it’s when the writer responds to the copy-edited chapters, either by writing on a printout or by entering additions and corrections electronically. This is when I often see evidence that writers are sensitive to repetition and self-edit to avoid it. For no obvious reason, a writer will change undoubtedly to certainly at the top of the page, and then, encountering certainly in the middle of the page, will change it to without doubt.

So what was it that set me to thinking about repetition? It wasn’t Mr. Yagoda’s post (which inconveniently forced me to throw out chunks of this one). It was when I came across a list in some editing notes that I had kept simply because I was so impressed by the writer’s tin ear:

the changing spirit of ever-changing eras
a relocated driveway location
a heavy rainfall fell
a range of multifamily dwellings, ranging from…
situated a block away, the site…

That a writer could let this sort of repetition pass tends to discount my theory about a general sensitivity, but I’m sticking to it. If most writers are bedeviled by repetition avoidance, it only makes my job easier.


*Soames Forsyte, on his automobile: “He regarded it much as he used to regard his brother-in-law Montague Dartie: The thing typified all that was fast, insecure, and subcutaneously oily in modern life” (John Galsworthy, The Forsyte Saga). Of course, context is everything: In a medical text, subcutaneously is just another word.

**From one of my favorite queries to the Chicago Manual of Style’s online Q&A:

Q. In a scholarly book about popular culture, the author has used several -esque word endings, usually hyphenated. According to CMOS instructions for the similar constructions of -wide, -like, and -borne, I would be inclined to remove the hyphen. But the result is unsavory. Also, in the case of open compounds, should the -esque ending acquire an en dash? See the following: Tarantinoesque, Skeeteresque, Gandalfesque, Billy Idolesque, Sid Vicious–like, John Paul–esque, The Parallax View–esque.

A. Unsavory indeed. (Your list should appear on the book jacket—who wouldn’t want to know what the pope is doing in the middle of all the carnage?) The rule is that unless the usage is self-consciously playful, you may have two -esques per book (no hyphens), but only if they are at least a hundred pages apart. If they involve en dashes, however, you get none.

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