30 April 2015

Snippets from Pinker on synonyms

Snippets from Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century on synonyms.

Chapter 5 offers as clear an overview of when and when not to use synonyms as one could hope for. This is an important issue for thinking writers and into-English translators alike. Writers in many languages believe it is good style in their language to use multiple synonyms rather than repeat a word or term. Many factors need to be considered when translating such texts into English. Pinker summarises the essentials admirably.


One point that he failed to mention, however, is the extreme position adopted by technical writers and their translators, which is to say by those who produce technical manuals and the like for software, industrial and consumer products and so forth. This group refrains in almost all circumstances from using any synonyms at all, no matter how many time a word or term needs to be used.

p156: ... he (the writer) doesn't strain for new ways of referring to the birds. The herons are herons; they don't turn into Arden herodias, long-legged waders, azure airborne avians, or sapphire sentinels of the skies.

Henry Fowler, author of Modern English Usage ... sarcastically stigmatized the practice as "elegant variation".

... journalese ... peppering ... prose with words that journalists use but that people never say ...

p157: When a noun is repeated in quick succession, readers may assume that the second mention refers to a different individual and fruitlessly scan the stage for him.

So which guideline should a writer follow, "Avoid elegant variation" or "Don't use a word twice on one page"?
Translators might have preferred 'term' rather than 'word'; but the meaning is clear.
Wording should not be varied capriciously, because in general people assume that if someone uses two different words they're referring to two different things.

When wording is varied only certain variations will be easy for the reader to track. The second label is acting as a pseudo-pronoun ... First, it should be more generic ...

p158-9: ... zombie nouns like anticipation and cancellation (as opposed to anticipate and cancel) ... do have their place in the language. The problem with them is that knowledge-cursed wrtiters use them on first mention because they, the writers, have already been thinking about the event, so it's old hat to them and is conveniently summarized by a noun. They forget that their readers are encountering the event for the first time and need to see it enacted with their own eyes.

p160 (my bold): Examples, explanations, violated expectations, elaborations, sequences, causes and effects are arcs of coherence that pinpoint how one statement follows another.

David Hume, in his 1748 book, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, wrote, "There appear to be only three principles of connections among ideas, namely Resemblance, Continuity in time or place, and Cause or Effect.
... linguists have subdivided Hume's Big Three into a dozen or more specific kinds of connection.
The key linguistic couplers are connective words like because, so and but.

p161: It is always surprising to me how often scientists thoughtlessly use synonyms in comparisons, because the cardinal principle of experimental design is the Rule of One Variable.

p162:  Parallel syntax is just the Rule of One Variable applied to writing.

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