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Yes! We have no bananas

Bless you, Philip B. Corbett, deputy news editor of The New York Times, and all your heirs and assigns. You have answered a nagging question of long standing.

It is a commonplace of advice on writing to avoid what H.W. Fowler called the “elegant variation,” the tendency among “second-rate writers, those intent rather on expressing themselves prettily than on conveying their meaning clearly,” to lean on synonyms and circumlocutions and epithets to avoid repeating words. The example almost always quoted is from the writer who referred to the banana on a subsequent reference as “the elongated yellow fruit.”

I was never able to track down the origin of that particular excess, but now the estimable Mr. Corbett, at his Words to Watch blog at The Times, says that it supposedly — there’s that famed Times copy desk caution — came from The Boston Transcript. And lo, he links to a 1953 article in Time, and there it is.

I’m willing to take that supposition, even from Time in the '50s , on trust until someone demonstrates otherwise. One more brick in the wall between knowledge and ignorance.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:01 PM | | Comments (7)


I'll betray my ignorance on this topic. What would a first-rate writer do when faced with a situation where the subject of every line in a narrative is the same? As an attorney, I face this problem often in relaying facts where there is often only one actor.

Well, it's nice to hear the original origin, but I think I'll keep crediting my former colleague Maggie Robbins, who was known to say, "it's the 'elongated yellow fruit' problem--try to find a synonym for 'banana'."

Anonymous, a writer facing the situation in which "the subject of every line in a narrative is the same" would:
- vary the sentence structure to the subject could become an object;
-combine some sentences to have a single subject but compound predicates;
-use some pronouns
-use "the fruit" perhaps instead of "the elongaged yellow fruit"
-live with the repetition that couldn't be eliminated by these means
-pick a different topic that has better synonyms (joking! because even when there are better synonyms, using them to avoid repetitions can make for some really annoying reading)

I nominate TV broadcaster Dick Emberg as the biggest abuser of elongated yellow fruits (which sounds more tawdry than intended).

"What would a first-rate writer do when faced with a situation where the subject of every line in a narrative is the same? As an attorney, I face this problem often in relaying facts where there is often only one actor."

Use a pronoun.

I've been reading The Portrait of a Lady. Henry James certainly isn't afraid of the "elegant variation." And in his hands it's a magnificent figure.

We had a story recently about an old outhouse that was being restored, and the reporter took extreme pains to use 27 different descriptive words for "toilet."

Some were just too ridiculous. I agree that it's sometimes necessary to avoid repetition, but saying "toilet" more than once is way less noticeable than using words like "loo" and "privy," much more suited to the UK than Florida. . .

Dorothy Parker recorded a couple of doozies in her review of Aimee Semple McPherson's autobiography:

"The sun becomes 'that round orb of day' (as opposed, I expect, to those square orbs you see about so much lately); maple syrup is 'Springtide’s liquid love gift from the heart of the maple wood; the forest, by a stroke of inspiration, turns out to be 'a cathedral of stately grandeur and never ceasing wonder and awe' (argue, if you will, for 'cloying quicksand' as the phrase superb, but me, I’ll hold out for 'stately grandeur'); the ocean—you’ll never guess—is “a broad expanse of sparkling silver”; icy panes are portrayed by the delicate whimsy 'Jack Frost had completely painted the windows with his magic brush'; and the gifted author is frequently asking you to 'But Hold!'”

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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