Strategies for avoiding tedious repetition – II

Jose A. Carillo

Jose A. Carillo

Let me pick up where I left off last week when I said that among the content words, nouns are the most amenable to substitution with other words as a strategy for avoiding tedious repetition. For that purpose, of course, we routinely use pronouns for subsequent mentions of subjects identified by name—“he” or “she” for singular proper names and “they” for one or more of them, and “it” for singular things and concepts and also “they” for one or more of them.


In feature writing and in the more creative forms of expression, we can use synonyms or similar words for subsequent mentions of particular nouns. Those synonyms can focus on particular or specific attributes of the subject or key word, thus giving the reader or listener more information about them without going into digressions that might just unnecessarily impede the flow of the exposition.

For example, the subject or key word “John Updike” might be later referred to in an exposition generically as “the writer” or more specifically as “a writer of sex-suffused fiction,” “a notable literary realist,” “the prolific American novelist and short-story writer,” “the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist,” and “America’s last true man of letters.” Indeed, by using a synonym or brief descriptive detail, each subsequent mention of the subject becomes an opportunity for throwing new light on it for the reader’s or listener’s benefit.

As parts of speech in English, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs each have a unique and distinctive meaning or sense. In the case of verbs, there’s a specific verb for every kind of action; for instance, while there are close similarities between “walk,” “stroll,” “saunter,” “amble,” and “jog,” they are not by any means perfectly synonymous. Thus, once you have used the verb “walk” the first time around for the action you are describing, it won’t be appropriate or advisable—just for the sake of avoiding repetition—to refer to that action as “stroll” the second time around, “saunter” the third time, “amble” the fourth time, “jog” the fifth time, and so on and so forth. For accuracy and authenticity’s sake, you’ve got to stick to “walk” in all subsequent mentions of that action you described as “walk” at the start.

This strategy should also be applicable to adjectives and adverbs. For instance, you’d be out of line describing a woman as “beautiful” the first time around, then describing her as “pretty,” “comely,” and “fair” in subsequent mentions; you’ve got to stick to “beautiful” or else not use that adjective again in the exposition. The same strategy would also apply to adverbs; once you have described the manner an action is done as “cruelly,” you can’t refer to that same manner as “fiercely” in a subsequent mention. In fact, it would be good language policy to avoid repeat usage of adverbs (particularly those than end in “-ly”) or use their synonyms later in an exposition.

Now let’s take up what you describe as your reluctance to use one word more than two times in the same writing and, in particular, your being tempted to sometimes alternate the preposition “about” with such unpleasant bureaucratic phrases as “with regard to,” “with reference to,” “as regards.” Of course it’s a good general approach to avoid using the same word or phrase more than two times in the same exposition, but strategically, I think you’d be ill-advised to alternate “about” with such phrases as “with regard to,” “with reference to,” “as regards” in subsequent parts of the same exposition.

As you yourself have pointed out, these phrases indeed can eradicate repetition in your prose, but they will definitely make your prose sound standoffish and thus just get in the way of clear communication. It will be like jumping from the frying pan to the fire, so to speak.

(Last of three parts next week)

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