Red lines of repetition

About this time of year Oxford University Press announce their decision on which word will become their Word of the Year. Apparently it has been almost impossible to identify one single word that sums up all that has happened in 2020, so the lexicographers have decided to give us a Words of an Unprecedented Year report.

If I had to choose one word it would be that one, ‘unprecedented’. Since The Rt Hon Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer, let it go (only six times) in his updated coronavirus statement to the Commons, on 20 March 2020, it has shot to fame, joining the vocabularies of politicians, journalists, TV and radio presenters, scientists and pundits of all persuasions, right down to the man or woman in the street.

It’s a good word for the right occasion and for the speaker who appreciates its ‘thud’ value. A lot of emphasis can be put on the second syllable giving the word the ability to express something that invokes awe and fear with the same breath and carries its own version of doom and finality.

There are other words. My copy of the Oxford Thesaurus suggests 18 synonyms that could be used instead, from ‘new’ to ‘groundbreaking’. None of them have quite the same knell of doom that Mr Sunak was able to put into ‘unprecedented’.

Have you noticed that once you hear a word that has not been a regular part of your vocabulary until that moment, you start to hear it everywhere and, dare I say it, you eventually become just a little tired of it? Once you’ve used it, yourself, a couple of times, to show that you are aware and in touch with the reality of now, you can keep it for special occasions so that it doesn’t get worn out.

A similar air of monotony can inhabit a piece of writing. The same word repeated over and over in a paragraph, or even worse, a sentence, can be irritating. Many readers may not notice the repetition if they read quickly, but it has been proved that readers notice subconsciously when a word is repeated. This may not only irritate, it may also cause the reader to wonder if the writer’s vocabulary is limited.

I make my living as an editor so I’m always on the lookout for words being repeated unnecessarily. I learned about repetition at an early age from my English teacher at primary school whose mission was to eradicate all instances of this bad practice from a piece of writing. We were set a weekly exercise to produce a handwritten page on a set topic. Our pages were collected by the teacher and returned to us the next day. Most of us got our page back covered in heavy red underlining to emphasise the shocking number of times we had repeated this word or that word, innocently unaware of what a crime we were committing.

It was a very good lesson that has stayed with me all my working life and many an overused word has been dealt a fatal blow with my own version of red, done with Tracked Changes now, of course.

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