Mea culpa: No one’s to blame if the song remains the same

One of my considered opinions is that journalists worry too much about repeating words. This anxiety has spawned a cottage industry in what is ironically known as “elegant variation”, by which we find increasingly elaborate ways of rephrasing, say, Kylie Minogue as “the Antipodean songstress”.

Sometimes the result is that we fail to make sense. In an article about the cellist who suggested that “Rule, Britannia!” should be axed from the BBC’s Proms, we quoted him as saying that people “don’t realise how uncomfortable a song like that can make a lot of people feel”.

By way of explanation, we went on: “The tune refers to Britain’s colonial past and involvement in mass enslavement.” But it is not the tune that refers to these things, as Philip Nalpanis pointed out. We were trying to avoid repeating the word “song” in the previous sentence but made the wrong choice. We could have happily repeated “song” – the reader wouldn’t have noticed and it would have made sense – or we could have said: “The words refer to…”


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