‘Tis the season — oops! Every year around this time, a memo circulates at The New York Times reminding the staff that seasonal cliches are not hallmarks of original writing. If memory serves, the memo also mentions something that’s expected to fall from the sky this week: fluffy white stuff. That’s an elegant variation for snow.
By now you’ve surely been taught to avoid repeating the same word over and over again in your copy. But some writers take that advice to the extreme, bending over backwards (that’s an idiom for trying much too hard) to avoid repetition when, really, it doesn’t matter. That’s how the phrase elongated yellow fruit entered the language. It, too, is an elegant variation — an unnecessary, usually longer synonym for a simple, concise noun.
Journalism is rarely about elegance; it’s about simplicity and clarity. An elongated yellow fruit is just a banana. Say banana.
This semester, at least one student came dangerously close to elongated yellow fruit syndrome when she wrote, in a story for Craft:
The morning after President Obama addressed the nation about the conflict over chemical weapons in Syria, Melrose residents observed the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks by expressing deep reservations about possible U.S. military action in the Middle Eastern country.
Here the Middle Eastern country is a just the writer’s attempt not to repeat Syria. Instead of either, how about:
. . . by expressing deep reservations about possible U.S. military action there.
The chances of confusion would seem to be minimal. The only other place mentioned in the sentence is Melrose, and the U.S. is unlikely to take military action against the Bronx. And there saves four words.
A frequent victim of elegant variation is said. Beginning journalists chafe at repeating said time after time after time; they prefer to substitute words like stated, explained, declared, opined. Resist temptation. Use stated for a quote from, say, a written or official statement. Save explained for a quote that actually explains what precedes it. Avoid declared; forget opined altogether.
As an old saying in journalism goes: “We don’t print the truth; we print what people tell us.” Tell = say to. Use said.
For those of you spending your first year in a Christmas culture, ‘Tis the season comes from a carol (Christmas song) you will not be able to avoid in the coming weeks:
Deck the halls with boughs of holly! (Fa la la la la la la la la)
Tis the season to be jolly! (Fa la la la la la la la la)
In your holiday revels, don’t slip on any elongated yellow fruit peels in the fluffy white stuff. And don’t try slipping any elegant variations into your copy.