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Repetition: A bubonic plague -- by Chris Welch

After reading the
the sentence, you are
now aware that the
the human brain
often does not
inform you that the
the word ‘the’ has
been repeated twice
every time.

‘Twas ever thus. You make the mistake of taking in a stray cat and immediately find a stream of lost puppies, sick hedgehogs and fledgling birds hammering on your door. I’ve done my poor best on behalf of the endangered adverb and now must turn my attention to other hapless parts of speech.

The problem is repetition. Repetition seems to be the bubonic plague of CC, deadly, contagious and of epidemic proportions. To be damned by its simple existence.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I have a congenital dislike of using the same word over again. I will turn verbal somersaults to avoid it. I will restructure sentences. I will consult the thesaurus and have no shame in saying so. I am not against pointing out the existence of obvious ‘echoes’ per se. I do it myself.

But repetition can be a deliberate decision of style, for effect, especially dramatic emphasis, for balance, even, on rare occasions for simply the rhyme or rhythm. Whether it works or not is a subjective aesthetic judgement and so we shall pass it by.

The real problem, to me, is that echoing often just does not echo.

This is especially true of the little people, the pronouns, conjugations of the verb to be, and definite articles. Though why nobody ever seems to point out an overabundance of ‘a’s is an interesting question. On the other hand, the word ‘that’ is particularly oppressed. But these are jolly useful chaps. Always helpful and self-effacing in my experience. Yet any convivial gathering of these good-hearted fellows is pounced upon and the riot act proclaimed.

You may well disagree, but I feel that there is little justification for pinging them. Yet, time and time again, they are identified, counted and excoriated. And the only criterion seems to be number.

Typical comments: You could lose the first ‘the’ because there are two others in this sentence. Six sentences start with the in this paragraph. There are three was words - better do a search. There are seven hers. I think it's better to get rid of pronouns whenever possible. Too many examples of it. Five she statements in a row. And so on.

I have no doubt it is done with the best of motives, but rarely, if ever, is the criticism buttressed with any kind of reason. Simply being there in any number is sufficient to damn them. I consider it as being a thing of habit, a Pavlovian response, a synthetic ‘problem’. The only ones who notice it are the ones looking for it. It is the white glove at the weekly inspection. And I shall attempt to provide reasons why I think this is the case.

Just read the following. Simply read it.

I’m srue yvuoe seen tihs bfroee. Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteers are in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm.

The phenomenon is well known to cognitive psychology, as is the fact that we recognize words by their ‘shape’. This is why reading capitalised letters takes longer to process. Then there is priming, where some contextual clue affects recognition speed. The Stroop effect is a good example, in which it takes longer to read colour names when the letters are in a different colour to that described by the word.

This is the evidence that we do not read as we were taught to, and probably, as most of us still think we do. The cat sat on the mat model. Instead, our brain rushes ahead to grasp the meaning, makes big assumptions and intuitive leaps and be damned to the detail. Which is why we get the well-known phenomenon of totally misreading newspaper headlines, as in ‘Woollen Mill Burns Down’ read as ‘Wooden Mill Burns Down.’ It also explains that irritating habit of making some glaring mistake and repeatedly failing to see it when we check our work. Our brain happily replaces the wrong word with the right word and doesn’t bother informing us of the fact.

Here’s one. How many letter Fs are in the following?


Now, you may have come across it before, and you have certainly been alerted to the need for caution, but how many failed to find six? At least on the first run through. Three is the norm. If you’re not convinced, try it out on someone else, without any prewarning. The brain does not process the preposition ‘of’, because it can grasp the meaning perfectly well without it.

It effectively ignores it. Such simple and very common words are ‘invisible’ words. Remember the missed ‘the’ words at the beginning? They can be required to avoid ambiguity and aid clarity, but are frequently, to all intents and purposes, practically redundant.

Even where omission can cause a ‘hiccup’ on reading, we often simply do not notice it.

John went to the cupboard, got out a biscuit and went to the table where sat waiting for Mary to arrive.

And I bet a very sexy Mary wearing black suspenders and stockings and nothing else appeared, even fewer of you would have noticed the missing ‘he’ (I’m just talking to the boys here). And did you spot the missing ‘if’?

It is well documented that noticeable verbal echoes are a function of the length of the word and its familiarity. ‘Big’ unusual words stand out. But short common words just do not. And as evidence that they are, effectively, invisible, let us consider pronouns in particular.

Firstly, and most obviously, in first person stories, ‘I’ is used ad nauseam. Yet, no-one notices! OK, I know there is no real alternative, but the point is – no-one notices!

Secondly, I found books which relied heavily on the repetitive use of personal names. Having read those books, it had never come to my attention, and it didn’t bother me a whit. So, I find it hard to understand why, when the ‘echo’ of a personal noun caused me no problems, the repetition of an innocuous pronoun should.

Thirdly, I took a random paragraph from Dickens (Great Expectations, Chapter III. Final paragraph) and found it contained 33 pronouns in 179 words, over 18%, significantly more than the ‘recommended’ maximum of online style editors.

Of course, you may say that they had a different style then, and no-one writes like that anymore, but is that not accepting that it is a matter of fashion lacking any objective basis?

Finally, I did my own little survey. Giving unsuspecting readers (who had not been through the CC mill) a section that has been criticised for overuse of pronouns. When asked to make any comment about the writing style that occurred to them, not a single one noticed the pronouns. You are welcome to try this one at home.

So, I could find no ‘evidence’ that pronoun use is actually a problem. There may be extreme cases, but normally they are simply not noticed.

So what is the basis for this zealous persecution?

Bland assertion as far as I can make out.
The Writing Centre simply says ‘Consolidate your writing by cutting down strings of pronouns.’ How and why it does this is not mentioned. Similarly, the Prowriting Aid e-book, Twenty Editorial Tips From Professional Writers, states:

You should check your pronoun percentage. Ideally it should fall somewhere between 4% and 15%. Any more than this and your writing can feel dull.

Note the weasel word can. Meaning what? Drink tap water and you can get drunk? Well, it’s actually logically true.
But A and B is NOT A therefore B, while can does not infer will.

Disregarding the clever manipulation of words, or their incompetent use, whichever it be, on what basis is it concluded that 16% pronouns makes writing feel dull? What well-designed, properly double-blinded, peer-reviewed test involving a statistically meaningful sample has been carried out, and duly replicated? Or is it just someone’s opinion, worth no more and no less than that of anyone else?

Sorry, can’t resist this. But the passage cited contained 25 words of which six were pronouns. 24%! Whoops. But be fair, it was pretty dull.

Apart from that, the only actual reason I can find given, is the accepted problem of pronoun ambiguity. And that has nothing to do with number.

‘All this is profoundly boring,’ I hear you say, ‘but explain to me why do I actually notice a sequence of pronouns then?’

The answer, I think, is simple. You look for them.
Once you begin looking for such things, you will find them, you become sensitised to them, and they stand out. I am convinced that this is behind much of the drive against invisible words. I can say this, because I have read all my life and never ever been bothered by these issues, never consciously noting them, but now I find myself seeing them in both my own and other people’s work. And once the brain has got something in its sights, it’s very difficult, if not all but impossible, to deflect it. The famous ‘Don’t think of a pink elephant.’

Which of these words have I used above? Aesthetic, humanity, congenial. You can check later. I doubt that you will be right. There was no reason for you to take special notice.
Will you spot the word enigmatic below? I’ll bet if the word enigmatic appears, you will see it, recognise it instantly and remember seeing it. You have been primed to see it.

There are other factors that play an important role. Peer pressure (look up the Asch conformity test – that might surprise you) and the power of authority (especially when dogmatically asserted in print), the all-pervasive confirmation bias and the psychological truism that the more we invest in a point of view the more reluctant we are to question it.

It is clear that reading is a complex skill and relies greatly on concentration on key words and the creation of predicted meanings depending upon the context. The evidence is strong that the pronouns, articles, conjunctions, the have, was, is words are almost invisible. Unless primed to see them, they simply slip beneath our notice. We see the building, the doors, windows, chimneys, but not the bricks.

But why get so worked up about such ‘invisible words’? If they are so beneath our notice why not let them be herded off to the knacker’s yard?

Well, in the case of pronouns at least, it’s because I positively like them. I’m not entirely sure why. I wonder if they immediately throw you into the story? Perhaps a touch of the enigmatic? Maybe, because they somehow produce a feeling of intimacy, by implying previous familiarity? Then pronouns do generally tend to make the writing easier to read and to have greater fluidity. In my opinion, of course. And I do dislike the awkward contortions sometimes forced upon authors in an attempt to avoid repetition, when it could all be said so much easier and more elegantly. I just don’t know. But it is the natural way I write. That doesn’t mean to say that you have to use pronouns, merely that it is up to you, and what you feel works.

As always, there are the obvious provisos. Like anything, such words can be overused until they force themselves into the consciousness of the reader, but I suspect that will require a very high incidence and be associated with metronomic sentence formation and barren prose. Pronouns can lead to ambiguity, or be positively misleading. If that is what you think in a particular case, as a critic, then say so. That is your job. But not to criticise repetition simply because it is there.

I investigated some of these style checkers and found one that calculated a ‘Bad Phrase Score’ ‘based on the quality and quantity of trite or inappropriate words, phrases, and clichés’. To my total lack of surprise, it was the poor, inoffensive ‘invisible’ words that took the brunt, though how the word ‘me’ could be characterised as trite, inappropriate or a cliché is beyond me.
The list of my own bad words, from a sample I submitted, started with the most ‘egregious’ and included very, me, small, then, said, looked, do, end, you, well, we, use, new, know, is, are, about, was and but. ( But then, if you said to me do we know they are ‘extremely bad in a way that is very noticeable’ (the definition of egregious) we would have to fumigate the whole paragraph.

Another advised me to remove seven examples of ‘it’ from twelve examples. I was graciously permitted to keep five. So, blithely disregarding context, it (sorry, missed that little blighter) calculates precisely how many pronouns you can use. ( Based on exactly what?

The game is given away on, where the figures are based on what they call ‘compare to fiction’. In other words, they analyse published work quantitatively and that is the criterion against which your work is measured. If ever I have come across a system designed to produce anodyne, derivative and cloned writing, this is it. It is the archetypal vicious circle.

I am told that editors do not ‘like’ too many pronouns, strongly object to ‘was’ sentences and the like. Whether that is true or not, I don’t know. But ultimately, it is up to you, the writer, to decide whether you should cravenly pander to ovine fashion or take your own individual and noble-minded path in defiance of stale custom. Alternatively, perhaps you should pragmatically consider the real world and its importance rather than blindly following a bloody-minded path to self-immolation. Your choice.

But it IS a choice.

So, where you draw the line is up to you. You write how you feel you want to write, what comes ‘naturally’ to you. Listen to advice and consider it well, but, at the end of the paragraph, you are the writer and yours the decision.

Just remember the words of Mark Twain.

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.

Wait a minute. 18%?
Too many pronouns, Mr Twain. Too many pronouns.

Regards to you all.

Posted by Chris Welch 26 Aug 2016 at 00:40
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Responses to this blog

Cacollins 26 Aug 2016 at 21:33  
Hah! Having been on the receiving end of critiques blindly citing rules!, I have to agree with the thesis that using sites intended to make a piece of writing conform to a norm is a closed loop system to produce soulless fiction.
Rellrod 27 Aug 2016 at 03:21  
Yes . . . I think both this and the adverb ban are instances of a more general problem: Somebody in creative writing classes seems to be handing out these well-intentioned but arbitrary rules, and budding writers eagerly apply them as if there were nothing else to bother about in a story. (I've never taken a creative writing course, so I'm guessing here, but that's my hypothesis.)

While I can see the point in many of these rules as useful general guidelines, if they're applied literally they don't correspond to anything in the actual content of published, well-written fiction.

Sh102 27 Aug 2016 at 13:00  
The only times I ever point out repetition is when it stands out and jars my reading; almost never with pronouns, but often with words like "great" or the dreaded "really". I think these critiques are often given because the critter wants to contribute something of value, but is too inexperienced or rushed to delve into the work he or she is responding to. It is much easier to point out a spelling error than it is to call out character inconsistencies or weak thematic support.
Iceriver12 27 Aug 2016 at 18:25  
What's all this about percentages? This it literature, not math! People should write in a way that feels natural, not how somebody else tells them to, and I don't think there's anything mathematical about writing, it's about passion.
I personally only care if several paragraphs in a row begin the exact same way.
Tyswan 28 Aug 2016 at 10:51  
Perhaps I'm in the minority, but although there are "rules" (I think I'd prefer to call them best practice guidelines) I intentionally break, for the most part, the guidelines (passive, filter, to be, repetition, consistent pov, etc., etc.) have made my work stronger and more focussed.

I want to be the best writer I can be. My story is for the reader, my prose is for me.
Onalimb 28 Aug 2016 at 11:28  
I've been editing a story I wrote about five years ago. I just came across this paragraph:

Instead of wood, she felt soft cloth under her fingers. She pulled her fingers away.

My fix:
Instead of wood, she felt soft cloth. She pulled her fingers away.

This removes the repetition, but the real problem with the original is redundancy.

Should a critter have pointed this fix out, I'd have no issue. I'm guessing that most feel the same. I'm also guessing that this type of issue isn't the point of the blog.

I suspect it's more like my example below.
In a chapter I recently submitted, I had a critter do this:

...his the mirror.

It isn't repetition. It isn't even a misapplication of the rules. But I believe the underlying issue is the same.

Changing 'his' to 'the' doesn't fix an error or improve the sentence. 'His' is more precise and accurate—it conveys more information to the reader. It doesn't change the flow; it's minor, something a reader wouldn't notice.

So why do it?

The underlying assumption is that 'improving' the piece means writing more like the critter. Whether it's applying 'rules' without looking at context, or failing to see the dramatic impact of repetition, it's not good-hearted suggestion that tends to rub us the wrong way, but the arrogant assumption of superiority.


Trevose 28 Aug 2016 at 13:11  
Responding to Onalimb's comment: "Instead of wood, she felt soft cloth under her fingers. She pulled her fingers away.
My fix: Instead of wood, she felt soft cloth. She pulled her fingers away."

I'm in the process of editing my 117k word novel before I send it to my editor. It is largely complete and has been through CC twice in the last 2 years. At this point, I'm rigorously — tediously! — editing and spending several hours a day searching for words on my "kill" list. Words such as very, only, just, nearly, seemed, almost, heard, all, back, up, etc... Some are adverbs. Some are filter words. In many cases, though, and to Harp's point (I think) some of them are just excessive.

To Onalimb's example, as I have hunted down these words, I've frequently spotted instances where I say the same thing twice, so I've been able to make the prose more concise in a number of spots. I'm feeling good about that (and have shed half a thousand words and am only half way through my list), but I'm concerned that more instances of redundancy are lurking in there that I'm not yet seeing...

In all events, it has been a good learning exercise that has heightened my awareness to such words. Rightly or wrongly is to be determined...
Jongoff 29 Aug 2016 at 06:25  
Trevose, don't omit important information. Omitting "under her fingers" changes the image in my mind, in fact, it obliterates it. I no longer have any image. The first sentence had me seeing her running her fingers over the cloth, had my fingers "feeling" the texture. Those are gone in the second sentence. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it is often the death of good writing.
Onalimb 29 Aug 2016 at 08:25  
Trevose, don't omit important information. Omitting "under her fingers" changes the image in my mind, in fact, it obliterates it. I no longer have any image. The first sentence had me seeing her running her fingers over the cloth, had my fingers "feeling" the texture. Those are gone in the second sentence. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it is often the death of good writing.
Please don't pick on Trevose. He was quoting my post. And it, btw, isn't the entire paragraph. There is far more to it. The image should have been fixed in the reader's mind before we got to this point. (However, I'm pleased that you were interested enough to comment.)

Trevose 29 Aug 2016 at 14:02  
This made me laugh after I read it a few times to understand what happened... Yes, Jongoff, I was quoting Onalimb. I did so because (at the risk of being repetitious) Onalimb rightly identified redundancy in their work. It's similar to the classic example: "He nodded his head." You don't need "his head" given that people don't nod other parts of their body.

And I'll double my bet. Onalimb is exactly right with this: "The image should have been fixed in the reader's mind before we got to this point." Specifically in this case that she was doing the touching with her fingers.

Though I don't know anything about wit, I agree that cutting too much can also be a problem. You are exactly right. However, and in keeping with the spirit of the original blog, and though it can be effective and have its place, most writers (myself included) are too wordy. I'm not sure repetition is a "A bubonic plague", but too many words that don't say anything new can wear out a reader and result in the most dreaded of all reviews: "DNF".
Jongoff 29 Aug 2016 at 20:03  
I can agree with the blog's premise. My first book's first draft was nearly 200,000 words long. Quite a lot of that was redundant scenes I'd written differently, and I had to cut out the ones I didn't want to keep, but much of it was wordiness. The final draft was closer to 120,000 words. We writers love our words, and I will admit to the guilty pleasure of not quite purple prose.
Comeaux 30 Aug 2016 at 03:05  
I'm intrigued by everyone's perspective. Someone on CC once told me that we are here to entertain the readers and as long as you do that by conveying well constructed ideas, in the end, who cares if you've fumbled with too many adverbs (and other mundane errors). My hope is that you'll make your point without making your readers stumble. But I caution everyone not to be too hard on the CC critics. We're all flawed. And we all bring something different to the table ... and there's a good chance we might not agree with our critic's elbows being on the table. When you think about it, the burden is really on the writer receiving the critique. Each of us must learn to put our Big-Boy pants on and learn how to receive a critique. When we receive critiques that prove worthless, say thank you and move on. Better yet, scan the critique again and see if there is a morsel of truth hidden in the critique. Like Harp said, in the end, you're in control and you and only you get to make the final decision. The other thing to consider is that you might be at a point where you've outgrown the critics here on CC. If so, don't hesitate to find more experienced writers to critique your work.

Right or wrong, those are my thoughts.

Onalimb 30 Aug 2016 at 10:21  
... When you think about it, the burden is really on the writer receiving the critique. Each of us must learn to put our Big-Boy pants on and learn how to receive a critique. When we receive critiques that prove worthless, say thank you and move on. Better yet, scan the critique again and see if there is a morsel of truth hidden in the critique. Like Harp said, in the end, you're in control and you and only you get to make the final decision. The other thing to consider is that you might be at a point where you've outgrown the critics here on CC. If so, don't hesitate to find more experienced writers to critique your work.

Right or wrong, those are my thoughts.

I agree that it's up to the author to decide whether or not to accept a crit. I don't agree that the critter is absolved of responsibility. A crit doesn't get written by accident, while the critter was asleep. We're all responsible for what we write.

That isn't to say that we don't make mistakes. Over the years, I've given loads of advice I'd happily take back.

What makes the most fundamental difference, IMO, is the attitude of the critter. I'd be willing to guess that every critter has, at one time or another, given an arrogant crit. I try to be diplomatic, to focus on the work, and not to cross that line, but I'm not an innocent in this. I'm as guilty as anyone. All I can do is to try to do better, moving forward.

Sometimes, the critter is going to be the better writer. Sometimes, they're going to be critting someone who is better than them. And sometimes, the writer is going to have a very different style, or is going to want to appeal to a different audience.

It can be hard to distinguish between 'needs improvement' and 'artistic expression,' but the more we strive to understand the author's vision, rather than trying to subvert it to our own, the wider our own horizons become. Not only do we become better critters, we become better writers.


Comeaux 30 Aug 2016 at 21:18  
Onalimb, that's exactly right. We all have a responsibility. However, when someone doesn't live up to that responsibility, we, the writer, must put our Big Boy pants on and graciously say "Thank you," then move on. So, again, the bulk of the responsibility is on the writer. There are just too many variables to consider about the critic. And you made my point when you listed them. We must better learn how to use a critique. And when that isn't possible, we must graciously exit and move on.
Kids_table 4 Sep 2016 at 07:30  
I think when most readers comment on repetition, what they're actually commenting on is flow. If it sounds right to their ear. A good test for this is to re-read a passage out loud. Does it sound awkward when spoken? If not, feel free to keep it.

Of course, repetition is also a technique, and if you've tried to use it and readers are complaining, you ought to examine if you've done so effectively.

...brain does not process the preposition ‘of’, because it can grasp the meaning perfectly well without it.
I do think this is crap, though. The reason your brain misses the F's isn't because it's not processing the word because it doesn't need it, it's because in the word 'of' F makes a V sound.
Didn't your mother ever teach you not to click on strange links?.
Devils need advocates too.
"And there's always edits."

Harpalycus 5 Sep 2016 at 14:07  
The question is about the written rather than the spoken word, though I agree that internal verbalisation may be a factor. It certainly is a plausible hypothesis and one that I am willing to accept as a contributory factor, possibly even the most significant.
But on what evidence is the conclusion based that makes it so certain that Kids Table's interpretation is absolutely correct and the alternative is such 'crap'?

As a little exercise of no scientific credentials whatsoever I constructed a sentence:

To stop angry men it is sufficient to take an old can full of aniseed and wave it under their noses.

I then asked five people to read it and count the number of 'n's.
They were then immediately asked to go through it and identify those they had missed.
My prediction, according to my hypothesis is that 'an' and 'and' would most likely to be missed.
Overall 9 words were missed, consisting of two 'under's, three 'and's and four 'an's. It is surely significant that none were the significant nouns and adjectives, one is a preposition, one an article and a conjunction.

Stromberg 18 Jun 2018 at 04:10  
Just came across this post. You're right—repetition should always be excised. Nowadays with Netflix and Facebook, everybody's too busy to read the same words over and over.

No, that should be, "the same words over."

Other improvements on inefficient old phrases:
"To be, or not."
"Government of, by and for the people."
"Free at last, thank God Almighty."
"Early to bed and rise."

And the list goes on and on and on.
Bentletter 18 Jun 2018 at 05:39  
Many people will resort to great lengths to attain beauty. Others will not. Some people will buy expensive creams to remove wrinkles. Others might actually think wrinkles can be beautiful in their own way and not worry about them at all. Still others may simply value saving a buck over chasing after beauty.

Whether you want to kill the repetition in your writing, or alternatively, think repetition can be beautiful in its own way, comes down to personal core values.

In my opinion, the core values inside a person should be a far stronger force guiding their writing, than anything (rules, critters) coming from the outside.

Peace out.

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