Writing Tools: Far-Fetched Synonyms Fluster Your Reader

Writing Tools: Far-Fetched Synonyms Fluster Your Reader

There was a time, not so long ago, when the stupid and uneducated aspired to be thought intelligent and cultured people doing their best to feign stupidity – Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

Arup Chakraborty Updated: Sunday, January 14, 2024, 12:15 AM IST
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Writing Tools: Far-Fetched Synonyms Fluster Your Reader |

A few writers may go to any extent to avoid repeating a word. They substitute far-fetched synonyms, often pretentious ones – instead of simply repeating the word. This amateurish practice is called elegant variation, a term coined by HW Fowler, hero of many grammarians.

There is, however, nothing wrong in repeating a word, if necessary. A simple word like “letter” becomes an “epistle” the next time it turns up. It slowly becomes “a note,” “a missive” and then a “written communication.” Such practice is annoying, but harmless. This practice can, however, be both dangerous and bad, when you are writing regulations or instructions. If you say something such as “car” in one place, “vehicle” in the next, and “automobile” in the next, you may demonstrate your vocabulary, but there are chances that you have bewildered your reader.

Therefore, there is no harm in repeating the key words, if necessary, for clarity, because your reader is not averse to such repetition of words. Sports writers are particularly fond of this device: East Bengal belts Mohun Bagan; India crushes South Africa; Australia massacres Pakistan; Brazil triumphs Germany – and so on. Such a display of vocabulary does not go a long way. You must avoid trying your reader’s patience.

Putting words properly

If you intend to lay stress on a particular word or phrase, you have two options – to put the important information at the beginning or to keep it at the end.  William Strunk and EB White prefer putting important information at the end. For literary writing, what they are talking about is probably right. Nevertheless, for “useful” writing, the advantages of putting the information at the end may not give the desired impact on your reader who wants to know what you are saying at one go. There are, therefore, the chances of confusion and misinterpretation. “Accordingly – at least in most cases – you’ll probably get your emphatic points across more clearly and accurately by putting them upfront,” writes Jefferson D. Bates. You can try the simple trick of writing the information both ways, if you are in doubt. Then you can see which method communicates most clearly and emphatically.

“Ago” and “back”

There are many writers, sub-editors, reporters and teachers who prefer “back” to “ago.” It is, however, not known what forces them to replace “ago” with “back.” There seems to be no reason for doing so, because in all cases “ago” is preferable to “back.” There are several examples with “ago” in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, which says, “It is used in expressions of time with the simple past tense to show how far in the past something happened.”

. Two weeks/months/years ago

. The letter came a few days ago.

.  She was here just a minute ago.

.  Scientists think there was water on Mars a long time ago.

.  He stopped working some time ago.

Therefore, the dictionary, the most popular one of all available on the net, says “ago” is an adverb of time. Although many writers used “back” as an adverb of time saying “ten years back, a few minutes back,” but good dictionaries and grammar books do not allow it. 

“Back” as an adverb has special uses and that too in phrasal verbs. The dictionary has many such entries. In fact, the use of “back” as an adverb of time is an outcome of Americanism. The example the dictionary gives is – The cathedral dates back to 1123; that was a few years back.

A good writer should avoid it and write “ago.” It should not be used in combination with since. “Ago,” says Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (SOED) is “used as postpositive and also interpreted as an adverb: past, gone by.”

A slight landslide occurred … about an hour ago – E Bishop Ay, a goodish bit ago – Charles Dickens The dictionary has only one entry with “back” in the sense of the adverb of time. Got into trouble two years back – C Causley Using “back” in place of “ago” is neither elegant nor preferable. Ergo, a writer should be careful about it.      

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