Pet Peeve: silly variation

Beached whale dies despite lifesaving efforts
By A. Journalist

A 30-foot whale that beached on the Central Coast has died.

Firefighters used their hoses to spray the mammal, which was reported alive but part-submerged on the beach at Central Coast on Tuesday.

A fire brigade spokesman said shortly after 9 a.m. that the whale had died despite efforts to save it. A cordon had been set up around the stricken cetacean to stop people getting too close and causing it stress.

8 thoughts on “Pet Peeve: silly variation

  1. Carol Schiess

    Silly indeed. It should have said the nearly hairless, fish-like water animal. Too bad the news report wasn’t longer. Maybe they could have worked that in.

  2. Law Student

    But Professor Scheiss – though a “Typical Journalist” may be wont to vary his language by calling a whale a mammal unnecessarily, he would not try to get “cordon” and “cetacean” past an editor. Perhaps this journalist did, but a Typical Journalist sticks to the adage that a newspaper should be mostly remain at a sixth-grade reading level.

  3. Stephen R. Diamond

    But then, using “whale” four time in four sentences isn’t the ticket either. The savior in such situations is the pronoun. The unfortunate dilemma–distracting variation versus annoying repetition–presents because “typical journalists” write in short sentences and short paragraphs, which are tough on pronouns. Perhaps Wayne will propose a revision.

  4. AlleyChan

    It seems that the author could have used words like animal or creature would have gotten the message across, while maintaining the all-important 6th grade reading level. I doubt that “cordon” and “cetacean” are words that are much more commonly used in England than they are in the US.

  5. Brom

    I agree with your premise, that silly variation is a thing to be avoided. It is especially problematic in legal writing, where using a different word could be viewed as an attempt to create a distinction and not simply as variation for the sake of variety.

    That said, I’m not as bothered by the particular example in this post. Maybe the “mammal” was unnecessary, but I kind of like the alliteration in the description “stricken cetacean.” And the writer did use “whale” twice – 50% of the total references to the creature.

    Now, if the article were longer than the excerpt presented above, and it continued to offer other variations on the marine mammal theme, then I would agree that the variation was a problem.

  6. Christopher Youngblood

    From Wikipedia: “In the 1920s, when Fowler coined the term ‘elegant variation,’ the word elegant had a since-lost pejorative connotation of ‘precious over-refinement.’ In The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style, Bryan Garner unambiguously recast the term as inelegant variation.”

    It’s not about the vocab. I think the idea is that there’s a more obnoxious animal than inelegant variation. It’s the whimsical, silly, or hackneyed variation of lawyer trying to substitute overwriting for point-making–or the the word-games played by bored legal writing students. Inelegant variation is dangerous because distinctions without differences often create ambiguities. “Silly variation” is dangerous because you’re begging people to roll their eyes and stop taking you seriously. In the hypo here, even though the writing is clear enough and easy to follow, you end up scanning the text anyway.

  7. Michael Meso

    I completely agree with Carol Schiess. But, maybe this text is only an excerpt from the article? Maybe we do not see the whole picture?

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