15

In my technical writings, I have a lot of instruction lists that describe how to use "something" under different circumstances. To avoid repetition of the subject, I replace it with "one", but it doesn't resolve the fact of the repetition itself.

A very childish example:

  • If you want to look offensive, wear a red shirt.
  • If you want to look fresh, wear a white one.
  • When you are in doubt, wear a green one.
  • If you are worried that the shirt might become dirty very quickly, wear a black one.

"one", "one", "one". Three times. What is the way to fix such a repeating without breaking the consistency? By breaking the consistency I mean something illogical, like this:

  • If you want to look offensive, wear a red shirt.
  • If you want to look fresh, wear a white shirt.
  • When you are in doubt, wear a green one.
  • If you are worried that a shirt might become dirty very quickly, wear a black one.
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Jun 14 at 19:07
30

Instead of

  • If you want to look offensive, wear a red shirt.
  • If you want to look fresh, wear a white one.
  • When you are in doubt, wear a green one.
  • If you are worried that the shirt might become dirty very quickly, wear a black one.

You could introduce some variations like:

  • If you want to look offensive, wear a red shirt.
  • If you want to look fresh, wear a white one.
  • When you are in doubt, go with green.
  • If you are worried that the shirt might become dirty very quickly, try black instead.

This breaks the monotony of the repetitions without changing the meaning.

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  • 1
    As a somewhat terser monotony breaker, one could replace the third and fourth with "When you are in doubt, where green. If you are worried that ...., wear black." – Lee Mosher Jun 14 at 14:13
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    While this provides the kind of answer OP asked for, I think a correct answer would be, "You are asking the wrong question." Repetition is not a defect in technical writing. If the repetition really is extreme, it may indicate that the information should be presented in a table (as suggested in a comment under the question). – David K Jun 14 at 15:41
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    Technical writing does not work like that. It's an instruction manual, not a leisure journal. – Prime Mover Jun 15 at 5:13
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    @PrimeMover the principle still applies though. Perhaps a technical writer would be more likely to say "select green" or "use black" rather than "go with green" or "try black." – phoog Jun 15 at 17:14
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    @phoog A professional technical writer would not use such a flabby and wordy construction in the first place, but would present the options in a table. – Prime Mover Jun 15 at 22:19
44

My personal view is that the repeated use of "one" is not a problem at all. Tying yourself up in more and more convoluted linguistic circumlocutions so as to avoid what is at base a numinous rule: "Don't repeat yourself", is to be guarded against if you are aiming first and foremost for clarity and ease of understanding. And in the art of technical writing, clarity is foremost.

For further emphasis about the clarity of exposition, my own personal style in mathematical writing is not to use pronouns at all, because it is too easy to fall into the trap of being ambiguous, which in mathematics won't do at all.

If you do find yourself needing to repeat the same sentence pattern as in the above, you may want to think about formally structuring, for example:

"Guide to shirt colour:

  • Red: to look offensive;

  • White: to look fresh;

  • Green: if you are in doubt;

  • Black: if you are worried that it may become dirty too quickly."

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  • 11
    +1 to "not a problem at all". Fowler, in his classic book "Modern English Usage", calls the attempts to remedy this non-problem "pointless variation" which often introduces more ambiguity. Sadly I can't find an electronic version of his rant here, but it's quite amusing. – abligh Jun 14 at 13:12
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    I think Fowler called it “elegant variation” and parodied an opera synopsis. I can’t find it at the moment, but it is on the lines of switching between Ronaldo, the count, our hero and the rejected suitor. Another reason I upvoted your answer is that the question refers to technical writing, in which such variation is poison as it raises a doubt in the reader’s mind whether the author is referring to the same thing. I have beaten it out of generations of students (as we did in the good old days). – David Jun 14 at 18:49
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    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…. – abligh Jun 14 at 21:51
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    +1, but the readers of this answer should keep in mind that "not a problem at all" here is only in the context of technical writing. This is indeed the context of the current thread, but it's easy to miss this fact (I had initially). – Ruslan Jun 15 at 15:23
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    @Ruslan No, it's not a problem at all in any context. Flowery prolixity has no place except maybe in some of the more rubbish poems written by dippy schoolgirls. – Prime Mover Jun 15 at 16:34
15

Since this is technical writing, the concise nature of tables is appropriate and may make the information easier to scan quickly. You could try something like:

Vary your shirt color to achieve different goals according to the table below:

    Goal             |  Shirt color
    ==============================
    Appear offensive | Red
    Look fresh       | White
    Express doubt    | Green
    Hide dirt        | Black

The table format helps to enforce parallel structure. It reduces redundancy in the use of "one," but also avoids repetition of the introductory, "If you want to..." and of the verb "wear..."

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8

Simply drop the indefinite article and the noun.

Instead of saying wear a red shirt, simply say wear red.

If you need to mention shirts at some point, you can provide an introductory sentence to this list.

When it comes to shirts, consider the following:

  • If you want to look offensive, wear red.
  • If you want to look fresh, wear white.
  • When you are in doubt, wear green.
  • If you are worried that a shirt might become dirty very quickly, wear black.
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  • 1
    So, red shirt, white pants, green socks, black shoes! – Hot Licks Jun 13 at 17:32
  • Guy Keleny teaches that "When it comes to" is flabby journalese which is best avoided. – Prime Mover Jun 14 at 6:47
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    @PrimeMover one could nonetheless rewrite to avoid "when it comes to" without diminishing the usefulness of this answer. – phoog Jun 15 at 17:16
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    @Prime Mover - You mean the guy who wrote this subheading: Grammar glitches, style stumbles and gay porn stars in the last week of the printed Independent. When it comes to who vs. whom, consider advertising it as gay porn instead. Well, that makes sense. independent.co.uk/voices/comment/… – KannE Jun 15 at 18:13
  • @KannE That's the man. He's wise. – Prime Mover Jun 15 at 22:20
3

Personally, I would gradually simplify by dropping verbs and nouns when readers can easily infer them from the context:

If you want to look offensive, wear a red shirt. To look fresh, a white one. When in doubt, green. Worried that the shirt might become dirty very quickly, black.

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