Monthly Archives: November 2018

Overuse of the Vocative Case | Liar, Liar

Our exploration of literary Barrier Objects continues with overuse of the vocative case.

Vocative (VOC): the grammatical case that marks the person or thing being spoken to

e.g., “Hey, Mom, what’s for dinner?”

In terms of syntax, the vocative case is a rhetorical element. It happens outside the main structure of the sentence, and its use doesn’t change the meaning of what is being said, except to direct it to a specific listener. It will usually occur either at the start or the end of a sentence, or it can interject alongside other rhetorical elements.

  1. Carol, I need your report by 5 o’clock.”
  2. “I haven’t seen you in ages, John.”
  3. “If you need me, Sam, I’ll be in my room.” (“if you need me” = dependent conditional clause)
  4. “If, Sam, you need me, I’ll be in my room.” (“if” = complementizer)

The more intrusive the vocative insert, the more marked it becomes. So, example #4 above would only occur if the speaker is making a special point to their listener. (And really, I imagine someone using that type of insert to go a little overboard: “If, my dear Sam, you need me, I’ll be in my room.” Sounds a bit threatening, haha.)

In everyday speech patterns, we use the vocative case in two primary situations:

  1. When we’re trying to get someone’s attention.
  2. When we’re trying to establish emotional connections.

We don’t actually say people’s names all that often when we’re talking directly to them. In fact, we can meet and openly interact with someone several times without ever exchanging names, depending on the circumstances. Shallow acquaintance requires no further investment that the pleasantries of light conversation. Only when you want to delve into a deeper relationship (friendly or otherwise) does it become necessary to put a name with a face.

This applies for writing as well as real-life situations. Authors don’t typically waste mental capital naming background characters, and if they do, their readers probably won’t retain such an insignificant detail anyway.

A Case for the Vocative?

Dale Carnegie encourages Vocative Case

Because, apparently, we’re all a bunch of egotists who like to believe the world revolves around us…?

In his pivotal handbook for how to creep people out be socially savvy, Dale Carnegie encourages use of the vocative. More specifically, he encourages people to use one another’s names (which isn’t a bad thing), and the vocative case is the easiest way to do that. People like to hear their own names. It makes them feel happy, loved, important, etc.…

Except that frequent use ends up feeling canned, as though someone read a self-help book and is trying too hard to show you They Care™.

*cough* (Because that’s what Carnegie teaches.)

If you say my name multiple times in a conversation, I will peg you as an awkward or manipulative conversant and minimize any further contact. But then, I adhere more to a reverse philosophy: “That’s my name; don’t wear it out.”

In his novel, Off to Be the Wizard, Scott Meyer comically illustrates the vocative ad absurdum:

ScottMeyer_satiric vocative case

Jimmy, we can imagine, was a Dale Carnegie acolyte. Phillip, on the other hand, was not. And Martin, stuck in the middle, gets the fun effect of not only a charlatan trying to schmooze him, but a cynic pointing it out for all to see.

Vocative Case in Fiction

Overuse of the vocative case shows up in writing when we’re trying to create emotional connections between characters. Imagine a page of dialogue where two people pour out their souls to one another. It’s sentimental, it’s vulnerable…

It’s got them saying each other’s name every other line, to the point of distraction. The names become a ridiculous tattoo, and the scene loses all its emotional potency.

Why? The answer is simple.

Even if you agree with Carnegie, even if you like the sound of your own name and have characters who also like the sound of their own names, remember: everything in a novel acts as a dialogue between Narrator and Reader.

It’s not your reader’s name you’re repeating. The repetition will not have the same emotional effect upon them as their own name would.

In an attempt to establish emotional connections, the vocative case can actually drive a wedge between the reader and the narrative. It’s not something to eliminate entirely, of course, but beware of overuse.

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3rd Observational Point of View | Liar, Liar

The first barrier object on our list, 3rd Observational Point of View, falls into the domain of rhetorical structure. As discussed in an earlier post, Point of View strongly influences the relationship between the Narrator and the Reader. And, when used unwisely, it can gum up that relationship as easily as it can promote it.

POV Overview

The standard 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person points of view receive their designations according to which pronouns the narrator predominately uses, and they act as the camera lens through which the reader receives the story.

So, 1st Person POV (I, me, my, we, us, our) gets restricted to anything the narrator can see, hear, feel, etc. Events where the narrator is not present or conscious require summarizing after the fact or else a switch in POV.

2nd Person POV (you, your) is the devil in fiction. It’s been done, but it’s a fussy lot of work unless you’re writing a Choose Your Own Adventure. In which case, fire away.

3rd Person POV (he/she, him/her, his/her, they, them, their) has a broader scope in what it can show, from a panoramic sweep of a battle scene to an up-close-and-intimate conversation.

Within each of these categories lies sub-categories of style. For example, the default 1st Person POV uses past tense, with the narrator telling a story after the fact. In contrast, 1st Person Present POV (aka Lyric 1st Person) uses a simple present tense, which can feel awkward for readers unaccustomed to its style.

(We don’t use a lot of simple present in our real-life storytelling. The stylistic choice to use it in a novel places the reader directly in the action as it happens. It also places on the author an onus to be consistent.)

Presumably, 2nd Person POV would have similar divisions between past and present tenses.

But the real fun lies in the 3rd Person categories.

Sub-Divisions of 3rd Person

In 3rd Person, point of view divides its styles into the Three Os:

  1. Omniscient
  2. Objective
  3. Observational

The Omniscient narrator, as the name implies, knows everything. A specialized type of this sub-category, the Limited Omniscient narrator, knows everything about their focal character(s): thoughts, opinions, assumptions, etc. Another specialized type, Free Indirect Style (as pioneered in Jane Austen’s Emma) actually shares those thoughts, opinions, etc. Everything is fair game with an Omniscient POV style.

The Objective narrator knows only what they can see. This style, most notably employed by Ernest Hemingway (see “Hills Like White Elephants” for the typical high school English example), has a sparse, stark narrative that leaves the reader to interpret much of what is going on. There’s no insight into character’s thoughts or opinions beyond what they express aloud.

Like the Omniscient narrator, the Observational narrator knows pretty much everything. The difference? They like to editorialize on it. Sometimes frequently.

And that’s exactly how they become a barrier.

3rd Observational Point of View

Consider the following paragraph, from Henry Fielding’s masterpiece, Tom Jones.

3rd Observational narrator Tom Jones

(Tl;dr, “I’m going to go off on tangents whenever I please, and critics can shove it, because they’re not the boss of me.” I might need this embroidered and hung above my writing desk. But I digress.)

Now, this narrator is using first-person pronouns all over the place. Quizzically, this does not a 1st person narrator make. Tom Jones is told in 3rd person, with these momentary asides where the narrator steps into the frame and expostulates.

Because that’s what the 3rd Observational narrator does.

Exception to the Rule

As far as I’m concerned, Henry Fielding is the master of 3rd Observational POV. He owns the trophy. The rest of us can go home.

But he’s also a product of his time, writing in the mid-1700s when the novel was still a fairly new medium. Early English novelists had issues with treading the boundaries between fact and fiction. Precursors like Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels were published as though they were accurate accounts (e.g., Gulliver’s Travels originally credited Lemuel Gulliver as its author, not Jonathan Swift). Samuel Richardson, in his preface to Pamela (1740), claims the title of Editor instead of Author, and ascribes the letters to truth and nature.

Liars, all of them.

Fielding, too, treads that line between truth and fantasy. He treats his characters as though they once lived or yet still do. At one point in the book, he even casts his own brother in a role. He is very much both Author and Narrator at the same time, but he differs from his predecessors (Richardson in particular) in that he never shies from claiming his story as a work of fiction.

Instead, Tom Jones becomes an instructional between Author and Audience, in which Fielding basically trains his readers on how to consume the story he will unfold.

Which, again, was fine for the 1700s. The modern reader, in contrast, is already trained.

The 3rd Observational Barrier Object

3rd Observational Point of View rears its head in such folksy phrases as, “Dear Reader,” “Our scene opens upon…” and “We now turn our attention to…” This narrator directly addresses their reader outside the events of the narration, sort of a chummy, “Hey, buddy-buddy-buddy” literary elbowing that almost screams, “PLEASE LIKE ME! WE’RE FRIENDS, AREN’T WE?!”

Rhetorically, this style interrupts the flow of the plot in favor of the narrator trying to establish some rapport with their reader. And it can show up in seemingly innocent ways, including such narrative commentary as:

  • to be honest
  • honestly
  • naturally
  • in fact
  • actually
  • indeed
  • of course

All of which are largely superfluous in narration.

At its best, this style conveys satire and tongue-in-cheek good humor. At its worst, though, it becomes condescending, a narrator who goes out of their way to explain their every impression as the events of the story unfold. Because their reader is obviously incapable of interpreting such things on their own, right?

A narrator, in short, that drives readers away instead of inviting them in.

Unless you’re using this style on purpose, with a clear understanding of the effect you intend to cause, it’s probably best to ditch this barrier in favor of more efficient narrative methods.

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Barrier Objects: An Introduction | Liar, Liar

Barrier Objects title plateThis section of the Liar, Liar blog series explores Barrier Objects, a term that refers to a non-verbal cue for deception. “Non-verbal?” you might ask. “How does that apply to the written word?”

But the pattern transfers nicely to language structure. Our goal is that our writing itself does not become a barrier between author and audience. Hence, the Barrier Objects sequence will be structure-heavy.

(Syntax lovers, rejoice! Everyone else, despair!)

In Real Life

In the realms of lie detection, a “barrier object” is any physical object that liars unwittingly place between themselves and their listener. This subconscious defense can take any number of forms:

  • ­Furniture
  • ­A purse or briefcase
  • ­Folded arms
  • ­Etc.

The object, regardless of what it is, gives the liar a subtle sense of greater security. Sometimes it positions them for easier escape.

The psychology that drives this behavior suggests that liars instinctively seek to distance themselves from their recipients. They put up defensive walls to protect against detection.

However, if the barrier has a purpose, it no longer serves as a tell for deceit.

For example, if you’re talking to a friend and she puts her purse on the table between you, but then she proceeds to rummage through it to give you the $20 she owes you, there’s a legitimate reason for the barrier, and its placement doesn’t indicate a possible lie. A teacher who stands behind a podium might need that surface to hold lecture notes, or might wish to ensure that everyone in the class has a good view of the presentation.

These are conscious choices, not subconscious defenses.

Barrier Objects In Writing

Literary barrier objects, then, are defensive frames or structures the author unwittingly puts between their reader and the action taking place. They can include but are not limited to the following:

  • ­3rd Observational Point of View
  • Overuse of the Vocative Case
  • Excessive expressive dialogue tags
  • Filter verbs
  • ­Expanded verb structures
  • ­Hedges and qualifiers

The posts that follow will highlight each of these in more depth.

As we discuss literary barrier objects, bear in mind that if you are using them wittingly, they have a place in your narrative. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any grammatical structure, and we don’t forbid rhetorical frames. In that vein, this section of the series is descriptive rather than prescriptive.

(I intend the whole Liar, Liar series to be descriptive rather than prescriptive, but this sequence particularly so.)

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Case Study: Austen vs. Heyer | Liar, Liar

When we encounter the term “worldbuilding,” instinct points us to the fantasy genre. All fiction requires worldbuilding in one form or another, though. In the realms of “Too Much Information,” we have a wonderful case study within the Regency sub-genre: Jane Austen vs. Georgette Heyer.

Austen lived and published during the Regency period. She wrote characters who lived in that setting for an audience who lived in that setting, a circumstance that gives her authenticity by default.

Roughly 120 years later, Heyer recreated the Regency setting for an audience who had no experience with it. She published the original Regency romance, Regency Buck, in 1935.

This novel contains All The Things.

Austen vs. Heyer

If you compare the language in Regency Buck to that of Jane Austen, many stark patterns emerge. We see the striking difference between Austen and Heyer in something as simple as their mentions of horse-drawn vehicles:

Austen vs. Heyer carriage terms

Austen’s generic terms (carriage, chaise, coach) account for 83% of her vehicle references. Heyer’s generic terms amount to only 42%.

My sample size included all six of Austen’s complete novels, plus Lady Susan and Love and Freindship. In all, I found 431 vehicle references: 283 carriage, 43 chaise, 32 coach, 24 barouche, 21 curricle, 13 phaeton, 11 gig, 3 chariot, 1 landaulette.

In contrast, Heyer’s Regency Buck (1935) has 291 vehicle references on its own, more than half of what Austen stretched out over 8 distinct works. And the breakdown: 80 curricle, 52 carriage, 45 chaise, 36 phaeton, 26 coach, 24 gig, 15 tilbury, 7 barouche, 4 hackney, 2 whisky.

All in a single novel.

Special Use

The comparison doesn’t end with mere numbers, though. Austen uses her specialized vehicles as a means of subtle characterization.

For example, the 7 references for “barouche” in Emma all refer to Mrs. Elton’s sister’s “barouche-landau.” If the term is not in Mrs. Elton’s dialogue, it’s either the narrator or Emma making a tongue-in-cheek reference to this carriage.

The barouche-landau never appears in the story, except in reference only. Austen uses it as a running joke to highlight how vulgar and pretentious Mrs. Elton is. The woman is trying to position herself as the most sophisticated person in the neighborhood. She believes that “things” prove her better worth, even when those things belong to her relatives and not herself.

Similar affectations emerge in Mary Musgrove’s jealous observation that her newlywed sister has a “very pretty landaulette,” and in John Thorpe’s ridiculous assertion that his gig is “curricle-hung.” Horse-drawn vehicles were a status symbol and a sign of wealth—or poverty, as the case may be. Austen uses them intuitively as such.

(For further detailed insight on this topic, see this lovely blog post. The writer goes far more in-depth than my analysis of Austen’s usage, but I was delighted to find my thesis held true.)

Now compare Heyer’s usage in Regency Buck. There’s no subtle characterization involved. Instead, the narrator slaps the reader with these specialized names and references over and over and over again: “Don’t. You. Know. We’re. In. A. Regency. Setting?”

Irrelevant Details

Regency Buck further offends our sensibilities with passages such as the following, about the Duchess of York:

Heyer quote about the Duchess of York

Now don’t get me wrong. That paragraph is hilarious, and basically true. The Duchess was crazy-cakes and the Duke was a piece of work, and anyone who visited them had quite the spectacle to observe. But here’s the very next sentence:

“The Duke, who never saw his wife except at Oatlands, had naturally not brought her with him to Belvoir.”

Because Belvoir Castle is where the narrative actually is. The Regency Buck characters never travel to Oatlands, the Duchess of York never gets another mention, and the whole long description is, for any plot-minded reader, 100% skim-worthy, if not entirely skippable.

I can only imagine that Heyer came across this info in the course of her research and was like, “Oh, yeah. That’s going in the novel.” And while it was fine for a first draft, the book would be stronger without it and other similar asides.

ALL THE THINGS

Heyer sample people places

A sample of the famous people and places mentioned in Heyer’s Regency Buck

Over the course of Regency Buck, Heyer name-drops 100+ historical people and 200 geographical points of interest. But not without anachronism. Among them,

  • We meet “Princess Esterhazy” at Almack’s Assembly Rooms, in an 1811/1812 setting. Her real-life counterpart, Princess Maria Theresia of Thurn and Taxis, didn’t marry Prince Paul Anthony Esterházy of Galántha until June 1812. In Bavaria, no less.
  • Countess Lieven is also present at Almack’s, but her real-life counterpart didn’t arrive in London until 1812 and wasn’t a patroness of Almack’s until 1814. (She also introduced the waltz there, so no waltz-dancing before then, I guess?)
  • Thomas Cribb is manning his saloon, Cribb’s Parlour, within six months of his infamous prizefight against Tom Molyneaux. By all accounts I could find, the real Cribb tended bar for two other establishments before settling on the one that would take his name. He only started bartending after his retirement from the ring. Even if he could do all that within six months, Heyer frames Cribb’s Parlour as a well-established haunt for the male half of London.

So, in her haste to include a glut of Regency details, she undercuts her reliability.

But the over-information goes beyond an onslaught of place names and people. The plot includes detailed accounts of a prizefight, a cock fight, and a curricle race. There’s a duel, an attempted murder, more than you ever wanted to know about snuff, two kidnappings, and a grand reveal. The characters have a London season, a Brighton season, and two separate country manor house visits, one of which includes a Hunt.

Basically, if people in the Regency era could have participated in an activity, Regency Buck’s characters did it.

A Trailblazing Legacy

But then, Heyer couldn’t have known she was establishing a sub-genre of historical romance. She wrote an additional two dozen Regency novels over the next 30+ years, and her style tempered with her familiarity to the setting.

In fact, if you compare the mention of horse-drawn vehicles of her first Regency novel to her last (Lady of Quality, 1972), the contrast is startling.

Heyer vs. Heyer

Regency Buck (1935): 291 vehicle references (80 curricle, 52 carriage, 45 chaise, 36 phaeton, 26 coach, 24 gig, 15 tilbury, 7 barouche, 4 hackney, 2 whisky)

Lady of Quality (1972): 42 vehicle references (23 carriage, 7 chaise, 5 gig, 4 coach, 1 chair, 1 curricle, 1 phaeton)

As you can see, we’re back in Austen-esque ratios. In fact, the more generic “carriage, chaise, and coach” make up exactly 83% of the Lady of Quality pie.

Heyer will always be known for being wordy, but she learned from her mistakes with Regency Buck. And we can learn from them too. Less is more. Don’t undermine your narrative with too many details.

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