The Writing of D. F. Lovett

D. F. Lovett's Blog

Enjoy regular thoughts and ideas, in web-log form, from D. F. Lovett. 

Regarding Elegant Variation and the Question of Content

I previously argued against the exhaustive use of the word "content," citing semantic satiation as the reason not to repeat content over and over and over. But there is another argument to consider, which could potentially override the risks of semantic satiation: elegant variation.

H. W. Fowler and the Pejorative Elegance

As Bryan Garner puts it in Garner's Modern American Usage:

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... Lest the reader think that the subject of this article is a virtue rather than a vice in writing, it has been renamed unambiguously: inelegant variation.

Garner gives a number of humorous example, including a writer who inelegantly writes "elongated yellow fruit" when trying to avoid saying banana twice. The columnist Ben Yagoda once wrote a column entirely dedicated to sportswriters and all their synonyms for home run.

What all of this leads one to believe is that Fowler and Garner and Yagoda and all the rest would embrace content. That if your presentation is about content, then you’d better not deviate from that word, for the sake of clarity and simplicity and candor.

But is this the answer? Or could there be a different takeaway?

Define: content

Try looking up content in the dictionary, or typing “define: content” into Google. You might be surprised. Google provides two pronunciations for content, including one adjective, one verb, and four nouns. These definitions range from “a member of the British House of Lords who votes for a particular motion” to, buried deep, “the information made available by a website or other electronic medium.”

This second definition is the closest we get to the use of “content” that floods the world of digital marketing, SEO, and the internet in general. But consider how vague this definition is and what it really means, and, if it is so vague, how elegance and variance relate to it.

Is Content the Banana, or is it the Yellow Fruit?

The question above is one worth asking: is content the best word that can be used in any given moment? The reason elegant variation is a bad practice is because it drives someone to use a lesser word when a better word would do. It drives someone to say “transit vehicle” instead of “bus,” leaving the reader to wonder whether we are still talking about buses or something more.

So it is with content. Content is often not the first option in an elegantly variant situation, but the second. It’s the word being swapped-in, often without the original idea or word even being discovered or defined. And usually there is a better option. Instagram content is videos or photos. SnapChat content is videos or photos with added effects. Blog content is either a blog post or an article or some other piece of writing. Using “content” broadens these concepts to a state approaching meaningless.

Sure, sometimes content is the best option. Maybe if often is. But other times it’s a filler word, or a word that has become so general that it has no meaning. It’s the equivalent of calling a flavor “very unique” or a book "interesting" or saying that a person whose style you don’t like is a “hipster.”

Which leads me to the question I propose one asks when pondering content and veering between the risky paths of semantic satiation versus elegant variation. If content is the banana, then say content. But if content is the elongated yellow fruit, the literally, the foodie, or the hipster, then keep looking for that better word.