Miss Bates of Emma: A Liar, Liar Case Study

Continuing in the Cooperative Principle and how to break it, we turn our attention to a literary example of rampant unintentional violations: Miss Bates from Jane Austen’s Emma.

Character Profile: Miss Bates

Miss Hetty Bates lives in Highbury, a frequent associate of Emma Woodhouse. The novel describes her in frank terms.
Character description of Miss Bates from Jane Austen's Emma

So she’s a middle-aged spinster, plain in appearance and impoverished in purse.

(Basically, she’s my patronus. But I digress.)

Miss Bates is a fundamentally good woman. She would never hurt a fly. And yet, conversationally, she violates the Cooperative Principle on every level.

Unintentionally, of course.

The Many Unintentional Violations of Miss Bates

  • Quantity: She regularly gives more information than anyone wants.

“Mr. Knightley I declare!—I must speak to him if possible, just to thank him. I will not open the window here; it would give you all cold; but I can go into my mother’s room you know.” (Vol II, Ch 10)

  • Quality: She speaks her assumptions, whether they’re true or not.

“Two steps, Jane, take care of the two steps. Oh! no, there is but one. Well, I was persuaded there were two. How very odd! I was convinced there were two, and there is but one.” (Vol III, Ch 2)

  • Manner: She rattles off her information without letting others get in a word edgewise.

All this spoken extremely fast obliged Miss Bates to stop for breath. (Vol II, Ch 1)

  • Relevance: She routinely goes off-topic.

“My mother’s deafness is very trifling you see—just nothing at all. By only raising my voice, and saying any thing two or three times over, she is sure to hear; but then she is used to my voice. But it is very remarkable that she should always hear Jane better than she does me. Jane speaks so distinct!” (Vol II Ch 1)

In short, she drives Emma crazy. When Harriet compares the unmarried status of both women, Emma declares,

If I thought I should ever be like Miss Bates! so silly—so satisfied—so smiling—so prosing—so undistinguishing and unfastidious—and so apt to tell every thing relative to every body about me, I would marry to-morrow. (Vol I Ch 10)

Non-Cooperation as a Narrative Force

Miss Bates’s character arc reaches its climax in the Box Hill episode (Vol III, Ch 7), in an exchange with our heroine:

“Oh! very well,” exclaimed Miss Bates, “then I need not be uneasy. ‘Three things very dull indeed.’ That will just do for me, you know. I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan’t I? (looking round with the most good-humoured dependence on every body’s assent)—Do not you all think I shall?”

Emma could not resist.

“Ah! ma’am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me—but you will be limited as to number—only three at once.”

In this unkind response, Emma flouts the maxims of Manner and Quantity:

  • ­Manner: She insults Miss Bates in the form of a jest.
  • ­Quantity: She shouldn’t have said an insult at all (and she knows it).

Miss Bates doesn’t immediately catch the slight, but when she does, she becomes so flustered and embarrassed that she leaves the group as soon as she can afterward.

As for Emma, she retreats into a “violation” defense when Mr. Knightley calls out her poor behavior:

Emma recollected, blushed, was sorry, but tried to laugh it off.

“Nay, how could I help saying what I did?—Nobody could have helped it. It was not so very bad. I dare say she did not understand me.”

The event serves as a wake-up call. Emma realizes that she has a responsibility to treat her friends and neighbors with kindness. Her higher wealth and privilege comes not because of any merit on her part, but because of her good fortune to be born to it.

Multiple Layers of Deception

The whole scene at Box Hill has some awesome deceptive dynamics at play:

  • Mr. & Mrs. Elton’s poorly hidden contempt for Emma and Harriet
  • Mr. Weston trying to keep everyone happy and also matchmake between Frank and Emma
  • Mr. Knightly concealing his jealousy of Frank and his ardor for Emma
  • Frank and Jane having a secret argument and Frank flirting with Emma to twist the knife
  • Emma plotting to matchmake between Frank and Harriet and also concealing her dislike of the Eltons, Jane, and Miss Bates

In short, everyone except Miss Bates is hiding something. The crux of the scene, the insult, leads to the breakup of the party and our heroine’s greater enlightenment.

Miss Bates unintentionally violates the Cooperative Principle, but so also do Emma and her sympathetic narrator. They have both portrayed this honest, well-meaning woman as a contemptible nuisance when no one else in the neighborhood judges her that harshly.

And that’s the grand surprise: Miss Bates is a silly foil for a silly girl whose worldview is so often wrong, and so often mistaken as correct. Any reader who allows Emma and the narrator to guide their opinion has a rude awakening alongside them both.

The Moral of the Case Study

Miss Bates, good and well-meaning as she is, provides a perfect example of a character who unintentionally violates the Cooperative Principle. She also provides a standard for this type of break on our other layers of dialogue.

Consider your current Work in Progress. Now, imagine that Miss Bates is your narrator.

Did you wince? You should have.

***

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Breaking the Cooperative Principal | Liar, Liar

Breaking the Cooperative Principle, method #2: flouting

not to be confused with “flaunt”

Although H. P. Grice’s Cooperative Principle provides lovely guidelines for how to accomplish good communication, for writers, its real value lies in breaking it. We all inherently know how to be non-cooperative, but we might not recognize the dynamics at play.

Breaking the Cooperative Principle comes in three distinct flavors:

  1. Violating
  2. Flouting
  3. Opting out

Violating and flouting maintain a veneer of cooperation even though they involve breaking one or more of Grice’s maxims (quantity, quality, manner, and relevance). Opting out is blatantly non-cooperative.

Break Type #1: Violating

This type of break occurs when one conversational participant doesn’t recognize the non-cooperation in action. Thus, there are two types of violations a speaker can commit:

  • ­Unintentional Violation: accidentally breaking a maxim without realizing what you’ve done. For example,
    • Rambling on a topic after your listener has lost interest
    • Giving misinformation by mistake
    • Speaking too softly without knowing it
  • ­Intentional Violation: surreptitiously breaking a maxim so that your listener doesn’t catch the break. For example,
    • Telling a little white lie
    • Withholding a detail that your listener might need
    • Smiling and nodding when you didn’t hear what the other person said

We violate the Cooperative Principle on a daily basis, in one form or another. It can be malicious or benign. Sometimes, it’s unavoidable.

Break Type #2: Flouting

This type of break occurs when a speaker openly defies a maxim so that the hearer understands there’s an alternate meaning. ­Sarcasm, jest, double-entendres, language play, and gatekeeping can all fall into the category of flouting.

We generally associate abrasive personalities with this type of non-cooperation. These are speakers who don’t tell us what we want to hear, who spout bald-faced lies to test our gullibility, who use obscure language as a barrier.

They are also the jesters and the sages, two archetypes that circle one another. Flouting often requires wit and a healthy dose of hubris. It’s a great way to alienate others by making them feel stupid, foolish, or out of the loop.

It is a defensive language pattern as well. We flout when we want people to back off, to leave us alone, or to shut up. Flouting can be aggressive—a warning for its recipient to seek conversation elsewhere—or it can be playful, a challenge to engage in deeper meanings.

But, it can also miss its mark if the recipient refuses to recognize the flout and treats the conversation as bona fide. (Which can be a type of retaliatory flout, haha.)

Break Type #3: Opting Out

This type of break manifests when someone outright refuses cooperation so that no conversation can happen. For example,

  • Snubbing
  • Giving someone the silent treatment
  • Turning away when your speaking partner is mid-sentence
  • Taking a different route through a room to avoid someone
  • Ghosting an acquaintance

Even though there’s no exchange of words, communication still occurs. Opting out can convey displeasure, disdain, contempt, and/or rejection. It is the last refuge of someone who is overwhelmed by another person’s communicative style. It can be passive-aggressive, or an amazing power play.

My favorite example of opting out comes from the life of Jesus Christ, in Luke 23:8-9 (KJV). When under condemnation and brought before Herod for questioning, the Savior says nothing. Ultimately Herod sends him away mocked and belittled, but with his own desires left unfulfilled.

This example shows that breaking the CP in this manner doesn’t have to be derisive or mean-spirited. Sometimes, the most effective conversation is no conversation at all.

Breaking and Observing the CP: A Conversational Contradiction

Cooperation is a malleable principle. Thanks to the many layers of communication, it is possible to keep and break it at the same time.

Example A: Inside Jokes

Inside jokes can be both cooperative and non-cooperative if the conversation has multiple participants. In one fell swoop, an inside joke can accomplish the following:

  • Cooperation to those who understand the reference.
  • A intentional violation to those who don’t catch the joke.
  • A gatekeeping flout to those who know they’re missing out, if the speaker is aware it’s an inside joke and uses it to exclude.
  • An unintentional violation if the speaker thinks everyone’s in on the joke when they’re not.

Insides jokes are a form of code-switching, and codes are inherently cooperative and non-cooperative, depending on whether the listener is meant to understand or to be excluded.

In this same category, Easter eggs and other hidden messages create a type of layered cooperation that unfolds with increased familiarity. The new or casual fan doesn’t know they’re missing out, but as they delve deeper into the source material, they discover these extra gems.

Example B: Metaphors

Metaphors, too, might fall under this cooperative/non-cooperative dichotomy. They carry surface meaning that can be apparent or obscure. If the listener doesn’t recognize there’s a metaphor at all, it becomes a violation. If they know they’re missing the true meaning and the speaker refuses to explain, the metaphor becomes a flout.

For extended metaphors like allegories, the surface story holds one layer of meaning easily accessed (cooperative), but the listener must delve into symbolism to arrive at the deeper, intended message. In this, the listener chooses their level of cooperation, whether to accept the overt message as-is or to explore other avenues of meaning.

A listener who closes their mind to metaphorical interpretations, then, becomes non-cooperative in their own right.

A Powerful Tool

Ultimately, we’re always communicating something. Non-cooperative conversation is a powerful tool to influence and manipulate. From outright lies to subtle details to silence, it can shape how people perceive others and the world around them.

Where writing is concerned, non-cooperation is a driving narrative force. We’ll explore one such example in the next post.

***

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The Cooperative Principle | Liar, Liar

In the 1960s and 70s, linguist H. Paul Grice defined the Cooperative Principle to explain dynamics of conversation. Even though his work hinges on real-life interactions, we will imprint it onto written dialogues.

The Cooperative Principle

The Cooperative Principle by H. P. Grice: "Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged. One might label this the COOPERATIVE PRINCIPLE."If you’re not a linguist, the above quote is some lovely word salad. We’ll break down what it means in a minute, but first, some broader precepts.

Among its implications, the Cooperative Principle includes the following:

  1. Cooperation is our natural default.
  2. Implied meanings can be cooperative.
  3. Politeness is not required.

Cooperation: A Default Mindset

Grice holds that not only is the CP our natural default, but “that it is reasonable for us to follow, that we should not abandon” it (Grice, p. 48, and the emphasis is his, not mine).

We generally avoid conversations where we anticipate non-cooperation. This is why you might put off calling an insurance company, making a doctor’s appointment, talking to an ex, and so forth. If you suspect someone might give you grief rather than doing what you want, you delay engaging with them.

On the other side of the coin, we also avoid conversations where we personally don’t want to cooperate. Hence, we screen our phone calls, hang “No Solicitors” signs on our doors, and take the long way ’round to avoid someone tedious in the grocery store.

Cooperation is our default.

Implied Meanings

Under the Cooperative Principle, the listener has a responsibility to interpret the speaker’s intended communication, even if they have to ignore literal meanings. Analogies, sarcasm, double-entendres, and puns all fall into the realm of cooperation, even though the listener has to perform some mental legwork.

Thus cooperation, though a default, is more than straightforward communication.

Politeness as a Detriment

Not only is politeness not required for cooperation, but it can sometimes be a roadblock. Two people can have a shouting match and still be cooperative if each wants to communicate their frustrations to the other.

In contrast, someone who withholds an honest opinion for fear of offending is non-cooperative if their partner truly seeks their feedback. Politeness actually inhibits cooperation in that scenario.

However, if someone wants politeness from their conversational partner instead of the truth, bluntness becomes non-cooperative. There’s a bit of mind-reading involved.

Cooperation, then, occurs when both parties have their conversational expectations met.

4 Maxims of Cooperation

So how exactly does the Cooperative Principle break down? Grice identifies 4 categories that speakers must meet for cooperation:

  1. Quantity: Do not speak more or less information than necessary. No TMI. No skipping or withholding necessary details.
  2. Quality: Do not speak that which you know to be false or for which you lack evidence. No lying or gossiping.
  3. Manner: Speak in a clear, brief, orderly manner. No rambling, muttering, ambiguity, obfuscation, etc.
  4. Relevance: Speak only that which is relevant to the topic. No tangents.

(This is the simplified version, by the way. If you want more in-depth explanations, see his article reference at the end of this post.)

I’ve listed Relevance last because some pragmatists hold that it is the umbrella principle that everything else falls under. Lies and word vomit are not relevant to a topic, and speaking affectations draw away from intended meanings. Regardless, these four categories work together to produce solid communication.

The Cooperative Principle and Fiction

3 Layers of Dialogue in Fiction: Character to Character, Narrator to Reader, Author to AudienceAnd all of this circles back to our 3 layers of dialogue. Why? Because “Good communication happens by keeping the Cooperative Principle, but interesting communication happens by breaking it.”†

The only layer of dialogue that should always adhere to the Cooperative Principle is the Author to Audience layer. But remember, as an Author, you’re only being cooperative if you deceive your Audience.

In other words, your characters and your narrator should routinely break the Cooperative Principle.

Which is what we will explore next.

***

†This is either a quote or a paraphrase from my Pragmatics professor, Don L. F. Nilsen, whose name I had to dig through old boxes to find because it was well over a decade ago. But the sentiment has always stuck.

Reference:

Grice, H. P. (1975) “Logic and Conversation.” Syntax and Semantics, Vol. 3, Speech Acts, ed. by Peter Cole and Jerry L. Morgan. New York: Academic Press. Pp. 41-58.

***

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Twelfth Day | 12 Days of Christmas Giveaway

And finally, on the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

Storm Child by Melanie Mason Twelfth day giveaway: Storm Child by Melanie Mason

To escape capture by Imperial soldiers, 16-year-old Eridale Storm leaves the only home she’s ever known and drags her younger sister into the wilds of Mericon—the Empire that formed when America collapsed. Hoping to find safety with their mother who disappeared when Eridale was three, the girls follow clues that lead them across the country, but the empire hounds their every step.

The journey draws Eridale deeper into the conflict between the Empire and the rebel Freedom Fighters, producing questions about Eridale’s heritage, questions no one wants to answer.

Caught between the threads of deception, rebellion, and betrayal, Eridale struggles to find out who she is. The answers she finds could lead the country back to freedom or shackle them under the imperial throne forever.

Storm Child is Book 1 of a four-book series.

About the Author

Melanie Mason is an author, designer, and flight attendant all rolled into one. She graduated from Utah State university with a degree in communications. She has told stories all her life and finds her passion in sharing the plots that spin through her head. She hopes to be on an airplane one day and see someone reading one of her books. Melanie lives in Portland, Oregon—with her two dachshund Chihuahua dogs—where the beauty of the Pacific Northwest feeds her imagination, and the rainy winter evenings encourage her to curl up with hot chocolate and a good book.

Grab your Twelfth Day Giveaway

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Merry Christmas, everyone!

Eleventh Day | 12 Days of Christmas Giveaway

On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

Turtle Soup by Danielle Thorne

eleventh day giveaway: Turtle Soup by Danielle Thorne

Sea turtles may be endangered but after an encounter with marine biologist, Jack Brandon, nothing will stop Sara Hart from naming her deli, Turtle Soup. When Jack takes a job at the Georgia Aquarium nearby, Sara finds the environmental poster boy at her door, hungry but carrying a chip on his shoulder. Neither thinks the other has what it takes, until a scuba class reveals what lies beneath the surface.

About the Author

Danielle Thorne is the author of classic romance and adventure in several genres. She loves Jane Austen, pirates, beaches, cookies, cats, dogs, and long naps. She does not like phone calls or sushi. A graduate of BYU-Idaho, Danielle saw early work published by Arts and Prose Magazine, Mississippi Crow, The Nantahala Review, StorySouth, and… you get the idea.

Besides writing, she’s edited for both Solstice and Desert Breeze Publishing. Her growing blog, The Balanced Writer, focuses on writing, life, and the pursuit of peace and happiness. Currently, Danielle freelances as a non-fiction author while waiting to hear from readers like you through her website. During free time, which means when Netflix is down, she combs through feedback and offers virtual hugs for reviews. Her next historical romance is coming soon.

Grab your Eleventh Day Giveaway

This sweet romantic comedy is free TODAY, December 24, on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00PE6UH94

Tenth Day | 12 Days of Christmas Giveaway

On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

A Thrill of Hope by Marie Higgins

tenth day giveaway: A Thrill of Hope by Marie Higgins

Holly Kidman is determined to be the best movie-producer California has ever seen … until her mother’s broken leg ruins Holly’s plans and she must return home for the holidays. During her stay in her home town of Timberland, Montana, fate throws her with a man she’d rather not be around. And yet, once she can get past old grudges, she realizes the charming man and his large ranch inspire her more than she thought possible. Dare she hope for her dream-come-true?

Rafe Montgomery is pleasantly surprised when Holly suddenly returns to town. Still haunted by the one, less than eloquent, kiss they’d shared years ago, he’s disappointed by the haughty attitude she’s come back with. His hope is to change the stubborn and unforgiving woman he’s slowly having feelings for and to show her what Christmas is all about.

About the Author

Marie Higgins is an award-winning, best-selling author of clean romance novels that melt your heart and have you falling in love over and over again. Since 2010, she’s published over 50 heartwarming, on-the-edge-of-your-seat romances. She’s broadened her readership by writing mystery/suspense, humor, time-travel, paranormal, along with her love for historical romances. Her readers have dubbed her “Queen of Tease” because of all her twists and turns and unexpected endings.

Connect with Marie Higgins

Grab your Tenth Day Giveaway

A Thrill of Hope is available TODAY, December 23, from Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B077XRTQRQ/

Ninth Day | 12 Days of Christmas Giveaway

On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

Namesake by Kate Stradling

ninth day giveaway: Namesake by Kate Stradling

“Who needs magic in an age of electricity? I can flip the switch on the wall with the best of them.”

Anjeni Sigourna bears the name of a legendary goddess, but her resemblance to that honored figure ends there. Eighteen and jaded, she has cultivated sarcasm instead of the elusive magic everyone expects her to possess. Such mystic power lacks purpose in her modern world.

But when an adverse encounter with the Eternity Gate lands her in an alien realm, magic marks the boundary between life and certain death. Anjeni alone holds the keys to saving an ancient people from a savage enemy. Her bitterness notwithstanding, she must now create a legend instead of living in its shadow.

About the Author

Kate Stradling is a structure junkie who adores the English language. Her novels flit through the fantasy spectrum, from dystopia lite to fairy tales to time-travel adventures. She blogs about literary tropes and word-smithing at katestradling.com and makes her home in sunny Mesa, Arizona.

And readers, she’s pretty flippin’ amazing, if I do say so myself.

(Jk, jk. I’d see myself out, but I live here.)

Grab your Ninth Day Giveaway

Namesake is available for free TODAY ONLY, December 22, on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B074MLW3KP/

Eighth Day | 12 Days of Christmas Giveaway

On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

Shattered Faith by Elle Scott

Eighth day giveaway: Shattered Faith by Elle Scott

You never know the strength of your faith, until it is tested.

When Elle Scott’s life crumbled around her, she thought God had abandoned her, His perceived silence resulted in a total loss of her faith and hope

and left her near suicide, until, she learned the reason God fell silent and the expectations He held for her.

Sentenced to nearly four years in a Federal Prison for a crime she did not commit destroyed every belief she held true. Her young children left in dire conditions, her life in ruins, and her Heavenly Father nowhere to be found.

This is a true story of courage, inspiration, redemption and restored faith.

Grab your Eighth Day Giveaway

Shattered Faith is free TODAY, December 21, on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07KY41Z7W

Seventh Day | 12 Days of Christmas Giveaway

On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

The Spectra Unearthed by Christie Valentine Powell

seventh day giveaway: The Spectra Unearthed by Christie Valentine Powell

Keita thought that being a princess was nothing but trouble even before the power-hungry Stygians took over the Spectra kingdoms. Now she’s on the run, hunted at every turn, and able to trust only a few other royal exiles. Of course she’d like to make her life safe again, but among the enemy’s ranks is the Nome king, Jasper Smelt. A former friend, Jasper insists he wants to keep her safe, but his pitch-black dungeon and fiery threats suggest otherwise. Trapped inside his desert kingdom, Keita sees the results of Stygian cruelty. She wants to help, but how can she face Jasper, someone with abilities she couldn’t begin to fight, someone who fears everything…except her?

About the Author

Christie Valentine Powell wrote her first story in second grade, and she has been writing ever since. She published her first book in 2015. Her other hobbies include making toys, hobby farming, and eating at Asian buffets. She lives near the sunniest city in the world with her husband, four children, and many chickens.

Grab your Seventh Day Giveaway

The Spectra Unearthed is free TODAY, December 20, on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01M4GL59X/

Hedges and Qualifiers | Liar, Liar

hedges and qualifiers quote Pamela MeyerWe complete the barrier object series with our final entry: hedges and qualifiers.

These rhetorical tidbits come in many forms. The terms “hedge” and “qualifier” are interchangeable. They denote words or phrases that damper the strength of a statement.

Hedges and Qualifiers

Grammatical hedges are literally named after a type of barrier. When we hedge, we use defensive language, something to retreat behind should anyone question our words. This is the rhetoric of the lawyer, the politician, the blogger, pretty much anyone in the service industry… and, well, everyone.

Everyone hedges to some degree or another. When you hedge too much, though, you look like a weasel.

Verbal Hedges

In this category we have “tempered” linking verbs and verb phrases. Consider the softening effect of the following:

  • seem
  • appear
  • look
  • tend to [verb]
  • try to [verb]
  • seem to have [verb]-ed

“He seemed angry” literally means there’s a possibility he wasn’t, but when you hear this spoken aloud, you assume the person in question was angry and the speaker is too polite to say it directly.

Similarly, “I tend to sleep in on weekends” comes from the mouth of someone who definitely sleeps in every weekend they possibly can but doesn’t want to sound like a lazy schmoe.

Politeness plays a huge role in hedging, as does conversational manipulation.

As a subcategory of verbal hedges, we have the conditional modals may, might, could, should, and would. If you compare them with their more solid modal counterparts, the hedge becomes glaring. For example,

  1. She might meet us at the restaurant.
  2. She must meet us at the restaurant.

Speaker #2 ain’t playing any games. Modal hedges shift from that concrete meaning to one with more wiggle room:

  • must → may or might
  • can → could
  • shall → should
  • will → would

And this simple shift makes a world of difference in responsibility to follow through.

As discussed in the article on Expanded Verb Structures, simpler structures are better. If you can eliminate a hedging modal for its concrete counterpart and still maintain the integrity of your narrative, good. But if you can eliminate the modal all together, better.

Adverbial and Adjectival Hedges

This type of hedge is a “fine tuner.” It emerges when a speaker wants to be meticulous about their language, again, to cover their backside from questions that a more direct discourse might elicit.

(Sidenote: yes, I’m using hedges to talk about hedges; like all barrier objects, they’re not always bad.)

Types

Adverbial and adjectival hedges gravitate toward certain semantic categories, including:

  • ­Smallness: a bit, a little, slight(ly), at least
  • ­Variety: kind of, sort of
  • ­Frequency: often, sometimes, rarely
  • Degree: rather, quite, somewhat
  • Untruth: not very, not actually, not really, not certain, unsure

But here’s the thing: in most cases, these “specifications” add nothing more than word count. Someone who is “a little tired” is tired. If you’re “kind of annoyed,” you’re annoyed. When the hero makes a “slight grimace,” he grimaces. We don’t have to shy away from direct speech, particularly in expositional narrative.

Bolsters

As for the “untruth” category, its opposite falls under the linguistic pattern of bolstering, which is yet another tell for deception. We’ve all encountered a boor who interrupts a conversation with, “Well, actually…” and then proceeds to give their opinion rather than fact.

It’s a long-standing joke that anytime someone begins a statement with, “Honestly,” or its equivalent, they’re about to lie. This includes longer phrases like “in truth,” “in fact,” “in all candor,” “in all honesty,” and so forth. The instant we try to convince others of how genuine we are, we plant a seed of doubt.

If you’re shoring up your work with bolsters, they will have much the same effect as hedges.

They are both barriers.

Qualifying phrases

Hedge types expand into the rhetoric layer of language with phrases that temper responsibility. For example:

  • As far as I know…
  • To my understanding…
  • From what I can see…
  • By and large…

Each of these leaves more than enough room for a speaker to weasel out of their words. Unless you absolutely need them in your narrative, they are prime for culling.

When to Hedge

Hedges and qualifiers are 100% okay in spoken dialogue, as long as they suit the character. So too are they appropriate for narrative, but only if they add the nuance intended. In many cases, there are better alternatives to a hedge.

If, for example, your hero favors your heroine with a “slight smile” and the slightness of it plays into the scene, it’s appropriate. But a dozen other descriptors could convey the same effect or a better one.

  • He favored her with a feeble smile.
  • …a wry smile
  • …an anemic smile
  • …a guarded smile.

Or, if you’re going the analogy route,

  • His smile was like a cup of weak tea.

All of these examples build on that more generic hedge of “slight.” But “slight” has its own charm, too, as long as it’s not modifying everything under the sun.

In Summary

Barrier objects create defensive writing, and defensive writing weakens your story. Our next section discusses a tool we can use to strengthen it instead.

***

­

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