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I am a native German speaker and in German it is considered very bad style to use a word more than once in a sentence or even in close proximity. So you usually have a big list of synonyms in your head and you always cycle though these words while writing or even change complete sentences so you will not have to use the same words.

I always automatically assumed that this is also the case in English. Now someone told me that this is actually nothing you have to be concerned about. (This sentence is actually a good example for this. I could have written: "Now someone told me that this is actually not the case in English." but I already used "the case in English" in the sentence before that and such repetitions are considered to be extremely clumsy writing in German.)

Could someone please comment on this?

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+1 Good question, I sometimes find myself struggling with the same problem, being Italian. :) (and therefore I do not have an answer for you!!) –  nico Mar 13 '11 at 19:06
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Every English style guide I have used has suggested the same thing as you describe in German... –  Kosmonaut Mar 13 '11 at 19:44
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I will note that you used the word "in" 9 times in your question, and "the", "this", "is" and "a" 5 times each. The first sentence alone contains 3 "in"s and 3 "a"s. Maybe you mean something more restricted than "a word" in "very bad style to use a word more than once in a sentence or even in close proximity" –  nohat Mar 13 '11 at 20:11
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English and german writing differ very little in this respect. –  Pekka 웃 Mar 13 '11 at 23:07
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@nohat: You are right of course but it seems that most of the people got what I was trying to say :) –  Plankalkül Mar 14 '11 at 3:53

4 Answers 4

up vote 17 down vote accepted

I consider it a matter of good style in English to vary all aspects of composition to keep the presentation of the material fresh and interesting. That means varying sentence length, mixing active and passive voice — in short, avoiding repetition and, with it, monotony. Obviously that applies to word choice as well. I am constantly on the hunt for synonyms. Mostly those come naturally, because I have a sizable vocabulary and English affords a writer so many ways to express the same idea. But at times it does become difficult to find suitable alternates. Even then I consider it well worth my time and effort to do so.

The only exception I make is when I want to use repetition to add rhetorical emphasis: to make a point, to make a meaning clear, to make the reader stop and pay close attention.

I would say that what has served you in German will serve you in English. And I already see evidence in your writing of the traits I describe above, which I perceive as virtues. Whoever has advised you otherwise is not doing you any favors. That is, unless that person is someone who will be reviewing your dissertation and has an obsessive fondness for needless repetition.

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I appreciate the immediate example - "The only exception I make is when I want to use repetition to add rhetorical emphasis: to make a point, to make a meaning clear, to make the reader stop and pay close attention." –  jjnguy Mar 14 '11 at 14:23
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+1, though it may be more nuanced than we're making it out to be. For example, if I wrote "Studying for a quiz is not the same as studying for a qualifying exam.", I wouldn't feel the need to modify the second studying, even though I could substitute preparing or some other synonym. In fact, someone who worked too hard to avoid the second studying would appear amateurish and might cloud the meaning. –  Wayne May 20 '11 at 21:52
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@Wayne True, but the usage is a little bland. Switching verbs emphasizes the difference, e.g., “Cramming for a quiz is not the same as studying for a qualifying exam” or perhaps studying versus preparing. Good style also depends on the immediate context: is it rich enough already? –  Greg Bacon Jun 5 '11 at 19:46

You should probably avoid careless repetition when there is an equally clear and terse alternative; however, don't let monologophobia keep you up at night. There are plenty of examples of writing where repetition is used to positive effect, usually for emphasis, if not solely for art. Stating the same thing different ways probably provides a broader appeal for a larger audience (driving the point home for some while making the meaning clear for others), but a scientific audience (for one) might prefer precise terminology, even if you have to repeat it.

A rosa kordesii is a rosa kordesii is a rosa kordesii.

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+1 for monologophobia; here is a link to it grammar.about.com/od/qaaboutrhetoric/f/FAQMonologophobia.htm ; it says it is often accompanied by synonymomania –  Unreason Aug 22 '11 at 13:51

I think it depends on the style of writing:

I agree that for most non-technical writing it's often considered poor style to repeat a word in the same sentence (other than articles, conjunctions & prepositions such as 'the', 'a', 'and', 'in', 'to', 'of' ...).

In technical and scientific writing, on the other hand, words often have precise technical meanings and it can be confusing or even misleading to use different words to convey precisely the same meaning. Confusing as the reader may be left puzzling over whether the different words are intended to convey slightly different meanings, and misleading if the reader understands them to have slightly different meanings when the author intended the same meaning. So in scientific and technical writing such as journal articles and instruction manuals, I'd highly recommend using the same word to convey the same meaning, even if it means repeating it within a sentence.

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Synonyms are always a difficult topic to tackle. That is, certain words are to be used in the contexts that require them. For example, if you look up "ironic" in a thesaurus you get "sardonic," sarcastic," "wry," and so on. None of these words can be used interchangeably. However, the meaning of the sentence or phrase would likely be unaltered. The trick is to minimize using adverbs and adjectives. It is easier to find synonyms for nouns and verbs that have similar meanings--though they're often not a perfect match.

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