Getting Over the Obsession with Word Repetition

Sandra Stewart | March 8, 2010

I usually blog about bigger-picture communications strategy issues, but my alter ego the Grammar Queen has been fighting to get out over the weird obsession with word repetition.

We hear from clients all the time, when reviewing all kinds of writing—articles, marketing copy, taglines—”But isn’t it bad to repeat a word?” Sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s good. And sometimes it just doesn’t matter.

I suspect that confusion on this points stems from a misunderstanding about why word repetition is sometimes bad. It’s not necessarily that repeated words make for monotonous writing (though they certainly can); it’s that repeated words often signal hazy ideas. Here’s a a simple example: The sentence, “We had a great meal at this great restaurant in a great neighborhood,” is obviously lame. Many people would think the way to fix it is to find synonyms for great. But is “We had a great meal at this excellent restaurant in a fabulous neighborhood” really any better? (Hint: no.) That’s because word repetition here is only a symptom of the real problem. “We had a great meal at this new restaurant in my favorite neighborhood” is a better expression of the thought because the new adjectives are not synonyms—they’re more precise information.

If you read something that repeats words and seems bland and uninformative, it’s usually not because the writer failed to use a thesaurus; more likely they failed to think through what they wanted to say and communicate that precisely.

When is word repetition good? When you want to convey the same information about different things: “Great for kids. Great for parents.” When you want to emphasize a subject: “It was the most fabulous shoe I’d ever seen. It was the shoe of my dreams.” (Substituting footwear for the second shoe would only drain the ardor.) Or when you want to create a transition: “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain. That plain is where two-thirds of Spain’s … .”  (Substituting flatland for plain would not aid comprehension.)

As the Grammar Queen has frequently observed, the first prerequisite of good writing is good thinking.

  1. Single words often do matter. Just after reading this post I saw the article headline, “Will I Stay or Will I Go? Cooperative and Competitive Effects of Workgroup Sex and …” My first thought was, I had no idea the Harvard Business Review had any interest in office shenanigans! (The last part of the headline, “… Race Composition on Turnover,” cleared things up.) Here, “gender” rather than “sex” would be much clearer. Obviously, no one was thinking about this one.


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