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H.W. Fowler (1858–1933).  The King’s English, 2nd ed.  1908.

Chapter III. Airs and Graces

ELEGANT VARIATION



WE include under this head all substitutions of one word for another for the sake of variety, and some miscellaneous examples will be found at the end of the section. But we are chiefly concerned with what may be called pronominal variation, in which the word avoided is either a noun or its obvious pronoun substitute. The use of pronouns is itself a form of variation, designed to avoid ungainly repetition; and we are only going one step further when, instead of either the original noun or the pronoun, we use some new equivalent. 'Mr. Gladstone', for instance, having already become 'he,' presently appears as 'that statesman'. Variation of this kind is often necessary in practice; so often, that it should never be admitted except when it is necessary. Many writers of the present day abound in types of variation that are not justified by expediency, and have consequently the air of cheap ornament. It is impossible to lay down hard and fast rules, but two general principles may be suggested: (1) Variation should take place only when there is some awkwardness, such as ambiguity or noticeable monotony, in the word avoided. (2) The substitute should be of a purely pronominal character, a substitute and nothing more; there should be no killing of two birds with one stone. Even when these two requirements are satisfied, the variation is often worse, because more noticeable, than the monotony it is designed to avoid.

The examples in our first group do not offend against (2): how far they offend against (1), and how far they are objectionable on other grounds, we shall consider in detail.

Mr. Wolff, the well-known mining engineer, yesterday paid a visit to the scene of the disaster. The expert gave it as his opinion that no blame attached...


The expert is gratuitous: He would have done quite well.

None the less Mrs. Scott [Sir Walter's mother] was a motherly comfortable woman, with much tenderness of heart, and a well stored, vivid memory. Sir Walter, writing of her, after his mother's death, to Lady Louisa Stewart, says...—Hutton.


His mother's is not only unnecessary, but misleading: there is a difficulty in realizing that her and his mother, so placed, can be meant to refer to the same person.

Mr. J. Hays Hammond, a friend of President Roosevelt, lecturing before the American Political Science Association, quoted a recent utterance of the President of the Japanese House of Peers. That dignitary said:...—Spectator.


That dignitary said might have been omitted, with the full stop before it.

Mr. Sidney Lee's study of the Elizabethan Sonnets, the late Mr. Charles Elton's book on Shakespeare's Family and Friends, and Professor Bradley's on Shakespearean Tragedy—a work which may be instructively read with Professor Campbell's 'Tragic Drama in Aeschylus, Sophocles and Shakespeare'—remind us that the dramatist still holds his own with the publishers. The last two or three weeks have seen two new editions of him.—Times.


The writer has thoroughly puzzled himself. lie cannot call Shakespeare Shakespeare, because there is a Shakespeare just before: he cannot call him he, because six other persons in the sentence have claims upon he: and he ought not to call him the dramatist, because Aeschylus and Sophocles were dramatists too. We know, of course, which dramatist is meant, just as we should have known which he was meant; but the appropriation is awkward in either case. The dramatist is no doubt the best thing under the circumstances; but when matters are brought to such a pass that we can neither call a man by his own name, nor use a pronoun, nor identify him by means of his profession, it is time to remodel the sentence.

If Mr. Chamberlain has been injured by the fact that till now Mr. Balfour has clung to him, Mr. Balfour has been equally injured by the fact that Mr. Chamberlain has persistently locked his arm in that of the Prime Minister.—Spectator.


Elegant variation is the last thing we should expect here. For what is the writer's principal object? Clearly, to emphasize the idea of reciprocity by the repetition of names, and by their arrangement. Mr. Chamberlain, Mr. Balfour: Mr. Balfour, Mr. Chamberlain. It is easy enough, so far: 'If Mr. Chamberlain has been injured by the persistent attachment of Mr. Balfour, Mr. Balfour has been equally injured by that of Mr. Chamberlain'. But that is not all that is required: there is to be the graphic touch; arm is to be locked in arm. Now comes the difficulty: in whose arm are we to lock Mr. Chamberlain's? in 'his'? in 'his'? in 'his own'? in 'Mr. Balfour's'? in 'that of the Prime Minister'? As the locking of arms is perhaps after all only an elegant variation for clinging, remodelling seems again to be the best way out of the difficulty. Perhaps our simplified form above might serve.

On Thursday evening last, as a horse and cart were standing at Mr. Brown's shop, the animal bolted.


'The horse'.—An unconscious satirist, of tender years but ripe discernment, parsed 'animal' in this sentence as a personal pronoun; 'it replaced the subject of the sentence'. Journalists (it was explained to her) are equipped with many more personal pronouns than ever get into the grammars.

The King yesterday morning made a close inspection of the Cruiser Drake at Portsmouth, and afterwards made a tour of the harbour on board the Admiral's launch. His Majesty then landed and drove to Southsea, where he inspected the Royal Garrison Artillery at Clarence Barracks. The King returned to London in the course of the afternoon.—Times.


This is, no doubt, a difficult case. The royal pronoun (His Majesty) does not lend itself to repetition: on the other hand, it is felt that hes, if indulged in at all, must be kept a respectful distance apart; hence The King in the third sentence. We can get rid of it by reading '...at Clarence Barracks; returning...'. But of course that solution would not always be possible.

The Emperor received yesterday and to-day General Baron von Beck... It may therefore be assumed with some confidence that the terms of a feasible solution are maturing themselves in His Majesty's mind and may form the basis of further negotiations with Hungarian party leaders when the Monarch goes again to Budapest.—Times.

If the Emperor of Austria should disappear from the scene, war, according to this authority, is to be feared, as the Emperor Francis Joseph alone controls...—Times.


There is no excuse either for the Monarch or for the Emperor Francis Joseph. 'He' could scarcely have been misinterpreted even in the latter sentence.

Sir Chartes Edward Bernard had a long and distinguished career in the Indian Civil Service... Five years later Sir Charles Bernard was appointed Commissioner of Nagpur... In 1876 Sir Edward Bernard returned to Nagpur.—Times.


It is natural that Sir Charles Edward Bernard should be introduced to us under his full name; natural, also, that an abbreviation should be chosen for working purposes. But why two abbreviations? If Sir Charles and he are judiciously employed, they will last out to the end of the longest article, without any assistance from Sir Edward.

Among the instances here given, there is scarcely one in which variation might not have been avoided with a little trouble. There are some, indeed, in which it is not gratuitous; and if in these the effect upon the reader were as negative as the writer's intention, there would be nothing to complain of. But it is not; the artistic concealment of art is invariably wanting. These elephantine shifts distract our attention from the matter in hand; we cannot follow His Majesty's movements, for wondering what the King will be called next time; will it be plain Edward VII? or will something be done, perhaps, with 'the Emperor of India'? When the choice lies between monotonous repetition on the one hand and clumsy variation on the other, it may fairly be laid down that of two undesirable alternatives the natural is to be preferred to the artificial.

But variation of this kind is, at the worst, less offensive than that which, in violation of our second principle above, is employed as a medium for the conveyance of sprightly allusion, mild humour or (commonest of all) parenthetic information.

When people looked at his head, they felt he ought to have been a giant, but he was far from rivalling the children of Anak.—H. Caine.


'Far from it', in fact.

He never fuddled himself with rum-and-water in his son's presence, and only talked to his servants in a very reserved and polite manner; and those persons remarked...—Thackeray.

'What made ye sae late?' said Mr. Jarvie, as I entered the dining-parlour of that honest gentleman.—Scott.


The parlour was Mr. Jarvie's.

At the sixth round, there were almost as many fellows shouting out 'Go it, Figs', as there were youths exclaiming 'Go it, Cuff'.—Thackeray.

Great advances in the education of women ... are likely, perhaps, to find more congenial soil in Universities less bound by time-honoured traditions and by social conventions than Oxford or Cambridge. Whatever may be the case by Isis or Cam,...—Times.

Our representative yesterday ran dawn to Brighton to interview the Cambridge Captain. The weight-putter and high-jumper received him with his usual cordiality.


This is a favourite newspaper type.

The miscellaneous examples given below (except 'the former of the last two') are connected with pronominal variation only so far as they illustrate the same principle of false elegance.

...hardly calculated to impress at this juncture more than upon any former occasion the audience...—Times.

His mother possessed a good development of benevolence, but he owned a better and larger.—C. Brontë.

In the subjoined official record of 'business done', transactions marked thus * relate to small bonds, those signalized thus + to small bonds free of stamp and fee, and those distinguished thus ++ to an exceptional amount at special rates. Stocks and shares marked thus ** have paid no dividend for the last two half-years and upwards.—Times.


The return to marked is humiliating; we would respectfully suggest characterized.

One might be more intelligible in such moods if one wrote in waving lines, and accordingly the question 'Why do you not ask Alfred Tennyson to your home?' is written in undulating script.—Spectator.

Eighty-three volumes are required for letter "M," seventy-seven are demanded by "L," and seventy-six are perforce conceded to "B"; but the former of the last two...—Westminster Gazette.

I must ask the reader to use the same twofold procedure that I before requested him to employ in considering...—H. Sidgwick.


We have not room to record at length, from the Westminster Gazette, the elegant variety of fortune that attended certain pictures, which (within twenty lines) made, fetched, changed hands for, went for, produced, elicited, drew, fell at, accounted for, realized, and were knocked down for, various sums.

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