Disusage presents the contradictions and foibles of usage manuals, style guides, and the quirky folks who love them. This week: elegance — variously a virtue and a vice.

"/> Disusage: (in)elegance — The Airship
By Jake Davis

Disusage presents the contradictions and foibles of usage manuals, style guides, and the quirky folks who love them. This week: elegance — variously a virtue and a vice.

elegant variation. It is the second-rate writers, those intent rather on expressing themselves prettily than on conveying their meaning clearly, and still more those whose notions of style are based on a few misleading rules of thumb, that are chiefly open to the allurements of elegant variation. Thackeray may be seduced into an occasional lapse (careering during the season from one great dinner of twenty covers to another of eighteen guests—where, however, the variation in words may be defended as a setting off of the sameness of circumstance); but the real victims, first terrorized by a misunderstood taboo, next fascinated by a newly discovered ingenuity, and finally addicted to an incurable vice, are the minor novelists and the reporters. There are few literary faults so widely prevalent, and this book will not have been written in vain if the present article should heal any sufferer of his infirmity.
—from Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 2nd edition, 1965

elegant. adj. [elegans, Latin]
1. Pleasing with minuter beauties.
     Trifles themselves are elegant in him. Pope.
2. Nice; not coarse; not gross.
—from Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755

elegant. a. [L. elegans, -antis; akin to eligere to pick out, choose, select: cf. F. élégant.]
1. Very choice, and hence, pleasing to good taste; characterized by grace, propriety, and refinement, and the absence of every thing offensive; exciting admiration and approbation by symmetry, completeness, freedom from blemish, and the like; graceful; tasteful and highly attractive; as, elegant manners;elegant style of composition; an elegant speaker; an elegant structure.
     A more diligent cultivation of elegant literature. Prescott.
2. Exercising a nice choice; discriminating beauty or sensitive to beauty; as, elegant taste.
—from Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, 1913

Inelegant Variation. H.W. Fowler devised the name “elegant variation” for the ludicrous practice of never using the same word twice in the same sentence or passage. When Fowler named this vice of language in the 1920s, elegant was almost a pejorative word, commonly associated with precious overrefinement. Today, however, the word has positive connotations. E.g.: “This book is exceedingly well edited, and several essays are elegantly written.”
     Lest the reader think that the subject of this article is a virtue rather than a vice in writing, it has renamed unambiguously: inelegant variation.
—from Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd edition, 2009

Have an aspect of usage you want examined? Email me.

Image via Every reform movement has a lunatic fringe.