language

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.)

***

Up next: Barrier Objects: 3rd Objective POV

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Repetition, Repetition, Repetition | Liar, Liar

repetitionNext up in our patterns of deception: repetition.

In Real Life

One very basic tell for deception occurs when someone repeats a question verbatim:

Person A: “Where are you going this afternoon?”
Person B: “Where am I going this afternoon?”

Not, 

“This afternoon?” or “Where’m I going?”

Partial repetition indicates a desire to clarify. Repetition in full is a subconscious mechanism that occurs to delay answering, giving a split-second more for Person B to formulate a less-than-truthful response.

And there could be a totally legitimate reason for Person B to deflect. Person A could be a creep. They could simply have no right to know Person B’s schedule. Regardless, this deceptive tactic shows Person B’s reluctance to tell the truth.

Seasoned liars also take advantage of the Illusory Truth Effect. Research shows that the more often we hear something, the more likely we are to accept it as true, even if it has no basis in fact. This phenomenon falls in line with the infamous “repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth” quote often attributed to propagandist Joseph Goebbels.

The Illusory Truth Effect feeds gossip threads and conspiracy theories alike. It drives smear campaigns and old wives’ tales.

Fake News™ on both sides of the political aisle relies on the Illusory Truth Effect to oil its gears. Lie, lie, repeat, repeat, repeat. Sooner rather than later people believe a story not because it’s true, but because they’ve heard it so many times that they accept it must be true. True Believers, when presented with evidence to the contrary, often retreat into the Fake but Accurate defense.

Ultimately, we each believe what we want to believe.

Repetition In Writing

Repetition in writing falls under greater scrutiny than the spoken word. Its forms include the following:

Repetitive diction

­Example #1: using the same descriptors multiple times throughout a passage

Everything is tiny. Or blue. Everyone is standing or walking or turning. Or going back, turning back, backing up, looking back. Repetition of this type manifests when an author feels the need to describe every minute action that their characters take, every slight angling of the body, every tilt of the head, every twinkle of the eye.

And yes, I’m drumming in the fault with an overuse of “every.” Repetitive diction used on purpose drives home a point. By accident, it chafes like a bur stuck in your reader’s sock.

­Example #2: Repeating names instead of personal pronouns when the referent is clear

Wanna know a secret? Proper nouns aren’t nouns. They fall into a grammatical class called “Determiners,” the same grammatical class that pronouns and articles belong to. 

If you say that “Mary” is your favorite Jane Austen character, your listener may wonder if you’re talking about Mary Musgrove, Mary Crawford, or Mary Bennet. (They also might question your taste in characters; it seems that Jane wasn’t too fond of “Mary” in general, because all three of hers are sort of pests.)

Proper nouns only have meaning according to their surrounding context, and they can only be swapped for another Determiner or Determiner Phrase. So, for example, “Mary” can equal “she” (D) or “the woman” (DP), but not simply “woman” (N).

However, they are marked determiners, and any marked part of speech draws attention to itself if used more than necessary. The unmarked form, personal pronouns, blend in with the surrounding narrative unless their context (their referent) is missing. In which case they become marked.

John entered through a side door, laughing. He rubbed his hands together. “You’ll never guess what I just saw,” John said.

That last “John” is clunky, right? When we already know who a narrative refers to, the unmarked personal pronoun becomes the preferred determiner.

Repeated details

This type of narrative repetition includes the following:

  • ­Paraphrasing and/or repeating information the reader has already received
  • ­Recounting events the reader has already experienced within the narrative

The temptation to paraphrase or recap events often comes as part of the drafting process. Sometimes weeks, months, or even years can pass between when you write one scene and its follow-up, and you instinctively want to make sure that the reader remembers that earlier event so they’re not lost. However, in a total immersion reading situation, a reader can consume the whole book in 5-7 hours. It may have been as little as 10-15 minutes since they encountered that information. In general, they don’t need you to revisit it, and certainly not in great detail.

For example

The following paragraph, taken from the first draft of an unpublished manuscript, illustrates some examples of repetition and paraphrase. (I have changed the character’s name, but nothing else.)

 Mary knew she was a selfish creature—she had been for years. If there was anything life had taught her thus far, it was that she could only rely on herself, that no one else really cared whether she lived or died. That was an exaggeration, of course—her grandfather tried, but his hands were tied from so many directions, including his own ingrained beliefs. He had changed, she knew, and probably still was changing, but she only trusted him to a point nonetheless. She had been left to her own devices too many times and had come to realize that everything was much simpler if she assumed she would receive help from no external sources. So long as she kept that cynical outlook, she owed nothing to anyone else; as an added benefit, she was not tethered down by any sense of loyalty or obligation to help others.

There’s a lot that’s wrong with this excerpt, but I’ve highlighted instances of repetition, both exact and rhetorical.

Analysis

  • First, we have a repetition of narrative frame: “Mary knew” and then halfway through the paragraph, “she knew,” again. Y’know. Just in case you forgot we were still inside Mary’s head.
  • Paraphrase (A) tells us she’s selfish. Three times over.
  • Paraphrase (B) tells us that her life’s experiences molded her into this selfishness. Twice.
  • Paraphrase (C) tells us how she interacts with the world because of her selfishness. Or rather, that she doesn’t interact with anyone.

Basically, this paragraph is roughly three times longer than it needs to be. The revised version reduces it from 149 words to only 46:

Mary had been a selfish creature for years, left to her own devices too often to rely on others and resentful when others tried to rely on her. This cynical outlook freed her from any sense of loyalty or obligation toward the rest of the world.

The revision condenses the many evidences of Mary’s selfishness into two sentences, ditches the narrative frame, and omits the details about her grandfather. We state simply what Mary is, why she is that way, and how it shapes her worldview.

The reader doesn’t care about the details of Mary’s selfishness, except in how that selfishness will drive her actions through the plot.

(And if you’re wondering why Grandpa got the narrative boot, it’s because the reader already knows he and Mary are on the outs from earlier in the story. There’s no need to repeat that detail here.)

Conclusion

Unwitting repetition gums up a story’s efficiency. Worst-case scenario, it drives a reader crazy and turns them off the book. If you’re wondering whether to keep or toss a repeat or paraphrase, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does this repetition serve a purpose?
  • Does it fulfill that purpose?
  • Is it necessary?
  • Is it necessary right here?

If you answer “yes” to all four, forge ahead. If not, revise.

Up next: Inauthentic Emotions

Previous: Indirect Discourse

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Indirect Discourse | Liar Liar

Indirect Discourse quote James PennebakerIndirect discourse is a dead giveaway that someone doesn’t want to speak the whole and ugly truth.

In Real Life

Patterns for indirect discourse include the following:

Passive voice

This common and oft-maligned structure acts as a hallmark of indirect speech. In passive voice, the lexical object of a transitive verb elevates into the subject position, and the subject removes either to a prepositional phrase headed with “by,” or to oblivion.

In layman’s terms, passive voice takes the focus off who did something and places it firmly on what occurred.

Liars cleave to this construct because it allows them to talk around their own culpability.

“The money was stolen last Thursday.”

It doesn’t matter who stole it, just that it was stolen, right? …Right?

Distancing language

Liars use fewer 1st person pronouns, and more 2nd and 3rd. This form of prevarication shares its source with use of passive voice. A liar doesn’t want you to focus on them and what they’re doing. They’d rather point your attention elsewhere, to what you and everyone else did.

A distanced narrative sounds more objective because it assumes a neutral point of view. It’s why scholarly papers largely avoided 1st person pronouns up until the last decade or so: researchers sought for that clinical tone that gave their work more gravitas. But in recent years, usage has shifted, to where “I” and “we” are not only accepted but encouraged in academic literature. There’s greater credibility in owning your research instead of attributing procedures and results to some unnamed arbiter.

Change of subject

Avoidance is a standard tactic to steer around the truth. Don’t like the topic? Pick a new one and hope your conversational partner doesn’t notice.

Except that most of us do notice. This tell, except when performed by the wiliest of prevaricators, sticks out like a tulip in a marigold patch. The liar who changes subjects relies on the politeness of their listener not to change it back.

Indirect Discourse in Writing

Passive voice

As with real life patterns, passive voice crops up in writing when the narrative focuses more on the what than the who. Some clarifications:

  • Passive voice is not every occurrence of the verb “to be” in your manuscript. Our wondrous and irregular “be” has five distinct functions in the English language, and its role as the passive auxiliary is only one of these.
  • Passive voice is also not the use of filter verbs (to be discussed in a later post). It is a specific grammatical construct formed with auxiliary be + a passive participle.
  • Passive voice can only occur with transitive verbs. It is impossible for intransitive verbs to form the passive voice.

This final point leads us to one of the ways to resolve passive voice: swap a passive verb for an active one, either an intransitive or transitive pair.

  1. (A) “The money was stolen last Thursday.”
    (B) “The money vanished last Thursday.”
  2. (A) “Mary was given a book for her birthday.”
    (B) “Mary received a book for her birthday.”

Passive and active verb pairs abound, their meanings related close enough for them to pass as rhetorical synonyms. This type of swap allows the passive subject to remain in its position of focus, but in a way that draws less attention.

The other obvious method to eliminate passive voice is to restore the active subject:

  1. (A) “The money was stolen last Thursday.”
    (B) “Someone stole the money last Thursday.”
  2. (A) “Mary was given a book for her birthday.”
    (B) “John gave Mary a book for her birthday.”

Passive voice is not grammatically wrong, but it is rhetorically weak, and weakness invites questions. Reducing its use can strengthen prose significantly.

Exhaustive exposition that talks around subjects instead of addressing them

Also known as circumlocution, this brand of indirect discourse points fingers at itself with how desperately it avoids subjects. Consider

  • The character that repeatedly refers to a conflict in their past but never names the actual event.
  • The recurring flashback that points to a dire outcome but never quite gets there.
  • The narrator that conspicuously omits certain details from their narration.

The danger of these examples lies in their likelihood to annoy a savvy audience. Avoiding a subject brings more attention to it. Treating it with ambiguity, however, leaves it open for the reader to interpret, and in many instances to assume that the narrator has addressed and resolved it.

Poorly executed red herring(s)

I have blogged about red herrings before, in a far more entertaining post than this one. Long story short, they can be a huge asset or a huge stumbling block.

Red Herring as a type of indirect discourse

Red Herring, a truly shady bloke

A while back my mom was in a book club that insisted on reading through an entire series of cozy murder mysteries. She said she always knew who the killer was because early on, the author would introduce a character who then faded away for the middle of the plot. The amateur sleuth would pursue instead a blatant red herring, and when that lead petered out, SURPRISE! The killer was that seemingly innocuous wallflower from the start.

Only, when it happens every single time over the course of a whole series, it’s not much of a surprise.

There is an art to red herrings. Namely, they must be believable. If they’re too over-the-top—trying too hard to draw attention to themselves, as it were—they lose their plot value.

Amateur sleuths flock to red herrings like seagulls to a trash barge. The trick is not for the sleuth to assume another character’s guilt, but for the reader to assume it. And that requires crafty plotting indeed.

In Summary

Narrators are guilty of indirect discourse when they avoid addressing questions that the reader has, or put off admitting things the reader has already figured out. 

Basically, if you talk around an issue too long, you point fingers at your own deception.

Up Next: Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

Previous: Contractions or the Lack Thereof

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Dialogue and Deception | Liar, Liar

Dialogue (n. \ˈdī-ə-ˌlȯg \ )

 a conversation between two or more persons;  also a similar exchange between a person and something else (such as a computer)

 Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

For the purposes of this blog series, we will consider writing itself as a form of dialogue. In fiction and creative nonfiction, this dialogue has three layers at work within it.

Dialogue Layer #1: Character to Character

The most basic layer is the one everyone thinks of when they hear the word “dialogue”: Character to Character. This is the back-and-forth exchange we see on the written page. It can be verbal or non-verbal, including hand gestures, facial expressions, letters, and so forth. 

In short, this layer involves anything one character does to communicate with another.

Dialogue Layer #2: Narrator to Reader

The second layer is Narrator to Reader. This includes exposition and narration and consitutes the Narrator and the Reader interacting across the fourth wall.

Obviously this dialogue is one-sided. The Narrator will not hear anything the Reader says. Sometimes a Narrator will prompt what they assume the Reader is thinking (“Oh, you were wondering about XYZ? I was just getting to that,” and so forth), but these prompts feel disingenuous because most readers aren’t thinking along those exact lines.

(But you like people filling in your thoughts for you, you say? No, typically none of us does. Be very careful when using this narrative technique.)

3 Layers of Dialogue in Fiction: Character to Character, Narrator to Reader, Author to AudienceThe Narrator to Reader layer of dialogue controls the POINT OF VIEW. This powerful story element is a built-in mechanism for manipulating the Reader’s perceptions and how they receive the string of events in your plot.

When a Reader picks up a book, by and large they are sympathetic to things the Narrator is sympathetic to and critical of things they’re critical of. In cases where the Narrator’s worldview differs significantly from the Reader’s, the Reader more than likely puts down the book and walks away, and the dialogue ends there. (Consider the case of a narrator who openly expresses antisemitism, or one who expounds upon the joys of animal abuse. That’s a quick way to kill the joy of reading.)

This layer also conveys SETTING and CHARACTERIZATION. Because the Narrator determines which conversations the Reader receives and which character interactions get featured or skipped, the Character to Character layer of dialogue depends entirely upon this layer.

Dialogue Layer #3: Author to Audience

The final layer of dialogue is Author to Audience. The Author is not the Narrator, and neither is every Reader your Audience. As authors this is our most important layer of dialogue, the foundation that upholds everything else.

This is the layer of conscious literary choices. PLOT, THEME, diction, analogies, metaphors, and other literary devices all combine to communicate some greater message to the Audience, to manipulate thoughts and feelings.

This layer exists whether you acknowledge it or not. It is driven by what you hope to achieve as an author writing your work.

Together the Author and the Audience engage in a cooperative agreement. The generic version of this agreement is as follows:

  • ­The Author promises to entertain.
  • ­The Audience agrees to suspend disbelief.

Every genre has a specialized version of this agreement. The Romance author promises deep emotional connections between characters, the Suspense author promises tension, the Fantasy author promises wonder and adventure, and so forth. And each of these genres has an audience seeking fulfillment of those promises.

Not an intelligent person in the world picks up a novel and says, “If this isn’t straightforward and predictable, I’m going to riot.” Even the audience for the trope-iest of trope genres wants to experience those tropes in an original way, with a fresh perspective and the promise of surprise.

Hence, Author and Audience enter a dialogue of deception, built upon mutual consent.

If the Author fails their promise, the Audience will drop their side of the agreement as well.

In a nutshell, it is your job as an Author to deceive your Audience.

Workshopping Questions:

  1. As an Author, what specific promises does your agreement with your Audience include? What tropes or other literary devices might help you fulfill those promises?
  2. What point of view does your current work-in-progress use? How does this POV help or hinder your Narrator?

Up Next: Basic Tells for Deception: Contractions or the Lack Thereof

Previous: Introduction: Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

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Introduction: Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

Why does language use differ in fiction versus nonfiction?

We might point fingers in several directions: the goal of the writing, the intended audience, the nature of storytelling, etc. But it turns out that the answer is completely basic.

Language use differs between these two disciplines because we use different parts of our brain to create them.

A Bit of Physiology

introduction to brain activityTelling the truth is easy. Our temporal lobe accesses and regurgitates our memories. There’s nothing to pull from thin air. We might have moments of pause as we reflect on the memory-soup and how to form it into a linear account, but that’s about it.

Fabrication, on the other hand, requires more mental power. Creating something from nothing activates 3 different parts of the brain:

  1. The frontal lobe suppresses the truth so the imagination can run free.
  2. The temporal lobe retrieves memory and creates mental imagery.
  3. The limbic system triggers increased anxiety that someone will call us out for lying. (YAY! /s)

That’s right. For writers, anxiety can be an occupational hazard. I don’t know a single author who doesn’t suffer from it in one form or another. It feeds Impostor Syndrome, which affects creatives of every variety.

But forewarned is forearmed.

Interrogators monitor this limbic reaction in polygraph tests when they’re trying to discover a liar. However, liars pass polygraph tests often enough to make this method unreliable. The more comfortable a person is with their fabricated stories—the more they believe their lies or just don’t care—the less this limbic reaction affects them.

As a writer, I want to be that comfortable someone.

Specific Conditions Required

So we’ll start with a very basic definition: What constitutes a lie? According to Pamela Meyer, there are 4 criteria:

  1. A lie must include a false statement or appearance.
  2. A lie must have a recipient; otherwise it is self-deception.
  3. A lie requires the intent to deceive; otherwise it’s an honest mistake.
  4. A lie requires a context of truth.

(from Pamela Meyer, Liespotting, p. 41 – 42)

Fiction doesn’t qualify as a lie because it doesn’t meet Condition #4: by its very definition, it doesn’t involve true events. The audience knows this, and they’re willing to suspend disbelief.

So, if anyone ever asks you what it’s like to sit around making up lies all the time, you can tell them you wouldn’t know.

(Or perhaps something more colorful. I won’t judge.)

However, even though fiction writers aren’t lying per se, the process of crafting fiction does involve fabrication. That extra brain activity engages, and our language use reflects as much. In other words, it does us well to look at patterns of deception and eliminate them in our work.

Up Next: Dialogue and Deception

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Putting Place Names in their Proper Frames

Wizened issues Average a calling with a slew of fanciful place namesWhenever I see fanciful or imaginative place names, real or fictional, my first instinct is not, “Ooh, how neat!” It’s more along the lines of, “What were they smoking when they named that?”

I live in a city called Mesa. Literally “table,” because it sits on a plateau. Nearby land features include South Mountain (to the south), Red Mountain (guess what color!), and the Salt River, which runs through salt banks on the Fort Apache Reservation.

The Salt is fed by the Black and White Rivers, which come from the White Mountains to the north. (Where it snows. Surprise.) We also have the Verde River and the ever exotic Gila River (pronounced “hee-lah”), but don’t get too excited. They translate to “green” and “salty,” respectively.

The most imaginatively named land features in the area? Those would probably be Camelback Mountain, which looks roughly camel-shaped from the side, and a range to the east called the Superstitions. But these are, of course, part of that vast and intuitively named North American system, the Rocky Mountains.

(Spoiler alert: you can find many rocks therein.)

Place Names: A Fine Art

One might contend that this stark realism in naming is a feature of desert living, but it’s not. Place names across the world break down in a similar manner.

The British Isles sport a number of “feature” names that, thanks to language change, no longer appear as mundane as they once were. Consider the following elements:

  • “dun” = hill
  • “fen” = swamp
  • “-more” = moor
  • “-kirk” = church
  • “avon” = river
  • “-lea”/”-ly” = meadow
  • “thorp”/”throp” = village
  • “-ford” = river crossing
  • “way” = road
  • “strat” = street

When you start combining these with each other and with other elements, the resulting names have a classical, established sense to them. And then you realize that the River Avon is literally the River River, a “dunhill” is a hill-hill, and the high-sounding Fenmore can only denote an exceptionally boggy bog.

Even the poetic Stratford-upon-Avon breaks down into “street-river-crossing-upon-river.” And suddenly it’s not so poetic anymore.

This convention holds true for other languages as well. The infamous Llanfairpwllgwyngyll in Wales translates (reportedly) to “the parish of St. Mary in the hollow of the white hazel.”

Meanwhile, the New Zealand landmark of Taumatawhakatangi­hangakoauauotamatea­turipukakapikimaunga­horonukupokaiwhen­uakitanatahu might intimidate the casual reader, but it only means, “The summit where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, the slider, climber of mountains, the land-swallower who travelled about, played his nose flute to his loved one.” (Thanks, Wikipedia.)

Which is why, when I see fantasy book maps with mountain ranges called the Jagged Spine or the Teeth of Hecate or whatever, it rings false. From what I can tell, settlers across cultures have arrived in new areas, looked around, and said something along the lines of, “Hey, this forest is pretty black. Let’s call it the Black Forest.”

Semantic Bleaching at its Finest

Many place names carry an otherworldly, fanciful sense because their meaning is not readily accessible to the average speaker. Foreign wording or language change swathes the landmark in a layer of mystery. Places named for their founders or in honor of other notable figures further establish that esoteric feel, because more and more often, proper names exist separate from their original definitions.

This chasm between word and meaning introduces uniqueness and wonder, but it can also give the impression that place names are arbitrary.

Typically, they’re not.

Now, this isn’t to say that the run-of-the-mill fantasy author should put away their scrabble tiles and take a more conventional route to naming their landmarks. Rather, when the darts are thrown and the seemingly random letters assemble into a slick-sounding country, the questions that follow might be, “How came this name in the history of my world? What is its root? What does it mean?”

And the answer doesn’t need a lot of window dressing. In the end, there’s nothing wrong with a place called “Red River” or “Castle View.” On the contrary, that simple detail can lend authenticity in a world where the unfamiliar reigns.

My two cents. (Of course.)

A Minor Hiccup in a Hedge

AverageEverygirl091

Nestled among the marked (or “dispreferred”) behaviors of discourse we find a lovely little linguistic feature known as “hedging.”

Hedging is the default refuge of anyone who doesn’t want to be held 100% accountable for what they say. The speaker tempers their words to lessen the impact of their speech, thereby creating a verbal trap door through which they can escape should the need arise.

It’s the linguistic equivalent of tiptoeing and a useful hallmark of lawyers, politicians, bloggers, and anyone else who might worry about getting caught in a lie by their own soundbites.

Shifty behavior isn’t the only factor that lends towards hedging. Politeness plays a strong part as well. You don’t want to speak in bald absolutes? There’s a hedge for that.

Modal Hedges

Modals provide a ready means of hedging. Compare the solid, reliable sense inherent in can, will, shall, and must with the weaselly, conditional sense of may, might, could, should, and would. You can almost hear the retractions formulating in a speaker’s mind:

“I told you I might help, not that I will.”

As modals, by their definition, indicate a speaker’s mood toward the statement they utter, use of the conditional models is a dead giveaway for a hedge. The speaker may follow through, but then again, they might not.

Verbal Hedges

Verbal hedges come in at least two varieties. The first is the pull-your-punch linking verbs that people like to substitute for the solid “to be”:

  • to seem; “She seems nice.” (I don’t know if she actually is, but she seems that way right now, so don’t hold me accountable if she turns out to be a massive jerk.)
  • to appear; “It appears we have an agreement.” (We have one, but I don’t want to trample on your sensibilities by declaring is so boldly, in case you’re having second thoughts.)
  • to look; “He looks angry.” (Every visual cue for anger is there, but there’s a slight chance he has one of those angry faces, so I won’t definitively label him as being angry just yet.)

The second type is a shell verb that dilutes the main verb of a sentence to allow for exceptions to the statement. For example,

  • tend to; “I tend to shriek when I’m scared.”
  • try to; “I try to obey traffic laws.”

Such hedges can be useful, but remember: the longer the verb phrase of a sentence, the weaker its effect. In strong, efficient writing, verbal hedges get the boot.

Adverbial and Adjectival Hedges

Adverbial and adjectival hedges are, as their name implies, adverbs, adjectives, or adverbial phrases that qualify another lexical part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, adverb, or preposition).

Some of these hedges reflect “smallness” in their literal meaning, the better to minimize the rhetorical impact of the word or message they modify:

  • a little; “I may be a little late.” (“I won’t be there on time, but it’s nothing to get upset about.”)
  • a bit; “Your voice is a bit loud.” (“Tone it down, Brunhilda.”)
  • slight; “We’ve run into a slight snag.” (“Something’s gone wrong. Terribly, terribly wrong.”)
  • at least; “I called your name at least five times.” (“I lost count after five, but there were more than that. Or I’m exaggerating to make you feel bad.”)

Others reflect “variety”:

  • kind of; “I’m kind of happy.” (“I’m happy, but saying it outright is too much.”)
  • sort of; “You’re sort of a jerk.” (“You’re totally a jerk. Mend your ways.”)

The “frequency” adverbs often and sometimes serve to temper their absolute counterparts, always and never.

My personal favorite with adverbial hedges is when they pile up on each other, à la kinda sorta (“I kinda sorta like you, Jimmy.” *blushblushblush*) or when they directly contradict the adverb they’re modifying.

Kind of really, my love, I’m looking at you. “I’m kind of really annoyed right now” actually means “I’m really, really annoyed right now, but I’m tempering one of those reallys with a kind of because I’m showing restraint, but if you don’t take the cue I might end up wringing your neck.”

Yes, in a strange twist of language, kind of really is a hedge that augments and diminishes at the same time, people.

(Which is why I love it so.)

When it comes to narrative writing, adverbial and adjectival hedges are mostly superfluous (YSWIDT, haha?) and can be edited out. A slight snag is a snag. A minor hiccup is a hiccup. And if you’re a little late, you’re late. Period. No qualifying necessary.

Except when you kind of really need to, I mean. And then it’s pretty much okay.

The Uncontested Right to Rule

AverageEverygirl085

Over the course of human history, the greatest conflicts have revolved around the right to rule. “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” as the saying goes: those with advantages in life will always claim they are better suited to lead, and perhaps they are.

But that doesn’t mean they should glide to the position without a fight.

Types of Government

The morphemes –archy and –cracy carry a meaning of “government” or “rule”; –archy is the Latin form, and –cracy is the Greek, and words containing one of these two units refer to a specific type of government. For fun and world-building purposes, I’ve compiled a list of terms.

  • Monarchy: [mon– as in mono– (Gr. “one”) + –archy ] One person holds all governing power. This position is typically hereditary, though cultural tradition plays a heavy role too.
  • Oligarchy: [olig– as in oligo- (Gr. “few, little”) + –archy ] A few select persons hold all governing power. This can be a council or a socially superior caste: the Powers That Be have closed ranks.
  • Gynarchy or Gynocracy: [gyn– or gyno– (Gr. “female, woman”) + –archy or –cracy ] Women hold all governing power. Yeah, you can probably imagine how common this form of government is. But that’s why we write fantasy novels, right? To explore new territory.
  • Duarchy or Dinarchy: [du– (Lat. “two”) or di(n)– (Gr. “two”) + –archy ] Two people hold all governing power between them.
  • Anarchy: [an– (Gr. “not, without, lacking”) + –archy ] No one has governing power. Total chaos reigns supreme, and every man for himself!
  • Hagiocracy or Hagiarchy: [hagio– or hagi– (Gr. “holy, sacred”) + –cracy or –archy ] Holy people hold all governing power. This is a religion-governed state.
  • Theocracy: [theo– (Gr. “god”) + –cracy ] God holds all governing power, and He invests it in his appointed servant(s) to act as His administrators. This is, again, a religion-governed state.
  • Plutocracy: [from ploutos (Gr. “wealth”) + –cracy ] The wealthy class holds all governing power. So, like, every country in the world. /cynicism
  • Autocracy: [auto– (Gr. “self”) + –cracy ] One person holds all governing power. Note: while this has the same meaning as monarchy, the sense attached to autocracy is more severe. An autocratic ruler is more likely to be selfish and ruthless, whereas with a monarch, that’s a toss-up.
  • Democracy: [demo– (Gr. “people” + –cracy ] The people hold all governing power. Majority rules.
  • Mobocracy: [mob– (Lat., short for mobile vulgus, “the movable/inconstant commoners”) + –cracy ] As the name implies, this is when a state is under mob rule. The term dates back to the 18th century, oddly enough. I’d have set it in the 1920s myself.
  • Meritocracy: [merit– (Lat., meritum “praiseworthy”) + –cracy ] Governing power belongs to those who merit it; a system that rewards ability rather than connections. I don’t believe this really exists except in closed circles, but the closed circles themselves imply connections, so… yeah. It’s a nice thought, though.

There are also numeric combinations: pentarchyhexarchy, heptarchy, and octarchy [penta– (Gr. “five”), hex– (Gr. “six”), hept– (Gr. “seven”), and oct– (Gr. “eight”)], for example. These terms refer to groups of five, six, seven, and eight allied states or governors and, presumably, any of the Greek numerical prefixes would work in this template. Why the Greek prefix gets tied to the Latin suffix is anyone’s guess, though.

(Just kidding. There’s a Greek cognate for –archy, so it’s all good.)

Not all forms of government include the –archy or –cracy suffix, of course. Here are some other lovely, government-related words to keep in mind.

  • Republic: [from Lat. res publica “public entity”] Governing power belongs to the people, through elected representatives.
  • Feudalism: [the etymology is mangled, but it relates to fief and a bygone meaning of fee “an inherited estate” and likely comes from Germanic/Teutonic roots. So there.] A system in which governing lords control lands and occupants thereof, and in turn pay homage to a higher Power or Powers That Be.
  • Nepotism: [from Ital. nepote “nephew”] The practice of showing political, social, or economic favor to family members.
  • Cronyism: [crony, from 1600s British academic slang of Gr. khronios “long time/duration” to indicate an old friend] The practice of showing political, social, or economic favor to close friends and associates.
  • Triumvirate: [from trium virorum (Lat. “three men”)] Governing power belongs jointly to three individuals. This was a Roman form of government that occurred under Caesars Julius and Augustus; an individual member of a triumvirate is called a triumvir.

Government has, from the beginning of time, been a social necessity. It’s telling to note, however, the number of synonyms that exist for dictator: tyrant, despot, autocrat, oppressor, usurper, fascist, authoritarian, totalitarian, and so forth.

Ultimately, power leads to corruption. Those who govern will always battle the allure of unrighteous dominion—if they don’t embrace it outright, that is.

The Case of the Autonomous Body Parts

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Prescriptive Rule: “Never use a body part as the subject of your sentence.”

E.g., “Her shoulders rose in a hapless shrug.” (This structure is deemed bad, according to this rule.)

I randomly encountered this piece of advice a few months ago and was baffled because—confession—I break this “rule” all the time. When the adviser could yield no information as to why this would even be a thing, I went ahead and dug around the Internets a bit to find some reasoning. (You’re welcome.)

And I found three main points:

  1. It leads to dangling participles.
  2. It detracts from the character (agent) who is actually performing the action.
  3. It creates a sense of “autonomous” or “disembodied” body parts.

#1: It leads to dangling participles.

“While talking, her fingers curled around the warm, comforting coffee mug.” (Amazing, these talking fingers.)

Initial Assessment: I’ll give #1 a halfhearted nod for effort. Dangling participles are a legitimate structural issue, and for writers who view a featured body part as representative of the character, this trap might be too easy to spring. However, it’s not the body-part-as-subject’s fault. Dangling participles are sloppy writing and easily corrected:

  • “While she was talking, her fingers curled around the warm coffee cup.”

In this example, the true subject reunites with its participle, and the fingers still get to curl. A prescriptivist might contend that a better fix would be,

  • “While talking, she curled her fingers around the warm coffee cup.”

That, however, is a matter of debate. “She curled her fingers” is redundant, unless you want to argue that she could as easily be curling someone else’s fingers around the cup (which is 90% nonsense, 10% possible if this is a murder scene, the other person is unconscious, the coffee cup is the murder weapon, and “she” is framing “her”). The redundancy also makes it less efficient, especially since the writer can easily emphasize this character with the proper subject in the participial phrase.

Personally, I’d go with, “Her fingers curled around the warm coffee cup as she talked,” and skip the participle altogether.

Point #1 Diagnosis: The possibility of dangling participles doesn’t give license to forbid an entire class of subjects from someone’s writing. Rather than saying, “Never use body parts as subjects, because they can lead to dangling participles,” a better rule would be, “When using a body part as a subject, beware of possible dangling participles.” Or, more tongue-in-cheek, “When using a body part as a subject, your writing should have no dangling participles.”

(You see what I did there? Participles can dangle without body-part subjects, too. So let’s stop talking about dangling and body parts, shall we?)

#2: It detracts from the character (agent) who is actually performing the action.

“Roger’s elbow jammed into Sheryl’s ribcage.” vs. “Roger jammed his elbow into Sheryl’s ribcage.”

Initial Assessment: This point looks to sentence structure as well. In English, the beginning of any sentence carries a focus feature that inherently directs the reader or listener to where they should train their attention. If the subject is the first element we encounter, it draws that focus.

Theta-Roles

Syntax and semantics teach about theta-roles, particularly the Agent, Experiencer, and Theme. Because Point #2 is so concerned about the character getting displaced as an agent, this bears looking into.

  1. Roger’s elbow jammed into Sheryl’s ribcage.
  2. Roger jammed his elbow into Sheryl’s ribcage.

These two sentences have a distinct rhetorical difference. In the second, Roger intentionally jams his elbow. In the first, the elbow is jammed, but whether Roger did it intentionally depends on context. If, for example, Roger and Sheryl are tumbling down a staircase together, Roger probably doesn’t intend to jam his elbow into Sheryl’s ribcage. It happens due to gravity and physics and the chaos that results from two people colliding under those circumstances. Sentence #1 is, therefore, the correct description.

Even in the case where the elbow-jamming is intentional, however, sentence #1 has a good argument for use.

Say, for example, that Roger and Sheryl are listening to Peter rant about how someone spilled a can of paint all over his car. Roger knows that Sheryl did it. He jams his elbow into her ribcage to drive home the point. However, he does it surreptitiously, so that Peter won’t notice.

“Roger’s elbow jammed into Sheryl’s ribcage” carries both a narrower and a more removed sense to it. From Sheryl’s perspective, Roger is prodding her to speak, but he’s doing so in a secretive manner. Only the elbow moves. The narrowing of the agent from “Roger” to “Roger’s elbow” gives a minute rhetorical cue of this controlled gesture. Roger can still be fixed on Peter and his ranting while ribbing Sheryl.

Point #2 Diagnosis: Yes, using the body part instead of the person shifts the agent of the sentence. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Banning the structure all together is like telling all artists to get rid of their fan brush because some of their peers use it too much or improperly. It makes no sense, and it robs creators of a tool that could otherwise be used to good effect.

Better instruction would involve training in syntax and semantics, so that the author who starts a sentence with a body part does so wittingly, aware of its narrative effect.

(Education, what? Shock! Chagrin! /sarcasm)

#3: It creates a sense of “autonomous” or “disembodied” body parts.

“Her shoulders rose in a hapless shrug.” (All by themselves, halfway across the room from where she stood. It was bizarre.)

Initial Assessment: “Ohmigosh! A disembodied hand just jumped into the narrative!” ~No reader, ever.

Pardon me for going off the rails here, but this excuse of “autonomous” or “disembodied” body parts is the MOST RIDICULOUS PIECE OF FREAKING GRAMMAR-NAZI DRIVEL THAT I HAVE EVER COME ACROSS IN THE WHOLE OF MY EXISTENCE. ARE YOU KIDDING ME??

  • “Her shoulders rose in a hapless shrug.”

No reader in their right mind is going to take that sentence as indicating that a pair of shoulders unattached to a body somehow magically appeared on scene and are moving of their own accord. The same goes for the following:

  • “His foot tapped a staccato rhythm against the floor.”
  • “Her fingers danced across the piano keys.”
  • “His eyes darted around the room.”

Body parts! Body parts everywhere!

EXCEPT NO.

See, there’s this thing about words. They have several layers of meaning built into them, layers beyond a simple dictionary definition. And when it comes to body parts, one of those layers dictates that the default condition for a body part is that it’s ATTACHED TO A BODY. That default remains in place unless specified otherwise.

So yeah, if you’re writing a zombie horror novel or graphic crime-scene thriller where disembodied parts are common and described in depth as being severed from their origin point, your reader might misunderstand a sentence that starts with a body part.

Might.

But probably not. Because readers aren’t stupid. (Or, at least, mine aren’t. *wink*)

Semantics—the layers of meaning that take in denotation, connotation, and sense for any given word and for the language as a whole—governs our understanding of language use. 99.9% of readers will never have that disembodied image enter their mind; the other 0.1% have heard this rule and had their mental process hijacked. (Thanks, prescriptivists!)

Or, worse, they’re being intentionally obtuse. “Look at this arm lurching across the page by itself, hur-de-hur-hurr!”

Point #3 Diagnosis: This is stupid. Quit using it as an excuse for telling people how to write.

The Eyes Have It

“Oh, but you should never have eyes darting, Kate. Eyes can’t dart, because they’re stuck in your head.”

Yes, exactly. They are stuck in your head, and everyone knows this. That’s why “darting eyes” works, actually. The minute the literal meaning comes up lacking, our brains switch over to a metaphorical one instead.

Don’t pretend you don’t know what darting eyes look like. I know you do.

A person’s eyes have long been synonymous with the scope of what they can see, but modern prescriptivists would have us believe that we should restrict the use of “eyes” in favor of “gaze.” And don’t even think about eyes doing anything beyond looking at other people.

I mean, unless you’re Shakespeare, that is.

Sonnet 137:

Thou blind fool, Love, what dost thou to mine eyes,
That they behold, and see not what they see?
They know what beauty is, see where it lies,
Yet what the best is take the worst to be.
If eyes, corrupt by over-partial looks,
Be anchor’d in the bay where all men ride,
Why of eyes’ falsehood hast thou forged hooks,
Whereto the judgment of my heart is tied?
Why should my heart think that a several plot,
Which my heart knows the wide world’s common place?
Or mine eyes, seeing this, say this is not,
To put fair truth upon so foul a face?
In things right true my heart and eyes have err’d,
And to this false plague are they now transferr’d.

William? Have you been ignoring prescritivist advice again, hmm? But surely that was a fluke, right?

Sonnet 5:

Those hours, that with gentle work did frame
The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell

Sonnet 14:

Mine eyes have drawn thy shape

Sonnet 78:

Thine eyes, that taught the dumb on high to sing
And heavy ignorance aloft to fly,
Have added feathers to the learned’s wing
And given grace a double majesty.

Sonnet 121:

For why should others’ false adulterate eyes
Give salutation to my sportive blood?

But it’s only in the sonnets, right? He can take poetic license in a sonnet.

Haha.

All’s Well That Ends Well, Act V Scene 3:

KING. Now, pray you, let me see it; for mine eye,
While I was speaking, oft was fasten’d to’t.

and later,

LAFEU. Mine eyes smell onions; I shall weep anon.

Yep! Eyes playing tricks TWICE IN THE SAME SCENE! Now try this next one.

Antony and Cleopatra, Act III, Scene 10:

ENOBARBUS. That I beheld;
Mine eyes did sicken at the sight and could not
Endure a further view.

Shall I continue? If you go to The Complete Works of William Shakespeare over on Project Gutenberg, you’ll find hundreds of “eyes.” Shakespeare’s eyes draw, eat, smell, and speak. They are anchored and fastened. They sicken and stay and bend and turn. They are, in short, horrendously active in ways that their physical limitations might proscribe.

AND THAT’S OKAY.

Can “eyes” be overused in a text? Unequivocally, yes. But insofar as restrictions upon what task the eyes might or might not be capable of performing? CAN IT, GRAMMAR-BOTS.

You know what the author means when they reference someone’s eyes darting around the room. Quit straining at gnats.

/soapbox

The Code of the Nerd (and Everyone Else)

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In the realms of fiction, the stereotypical nerd can be spotted from miles away: awkward, bookish, and almost always subpar in the physical department. They like to study. They spout random factoids and scientific explanations.

They can be part of the group, but not really.

Nerds in Society and Lit

Social narratives play a dangerous game when it comes to intelligence. We want to be smart, but not too smart. Innate genius is wonderful if it comes out of the blue, but it’s mock-worthy if a person decides to foster it above all other pursuits. “Normal” people can’t relate to “smart” people. The label, much revered and desired, can ostracize as easily as it endears.

The smart person lives in a different sphere, you see, and any attempt on their part to relate to the plebeian masses gets dismissed and/or ridiculed.

One of the most common tropes for establishing a character’s level of intelligence comes through dialogue: the smarter the character, the more $5 words they use. While this might seem intuitive at first glance, there’s much more to this pattern than meets the eye.

Nerd-Speak: A Brief Linguistic Analysis

The linguistic field of Pragmatics teaches that language creates “Speech Acts”: that is, everything we say or write is meant to effect change. Language is not simply communication. It is manipulation. What we say and how we say it influence how others perceive us.

Thus, in a language that places high value on difficult vocabulary (i.e., English; thanks very much to the SATs for perpetuating this ideal), someone who uses a lot of big words receives the label of “smart.”

However, practical language use places a much higher value in being understood. On this scale, the smartest speaker would actually be the one who gets their point across unhindered by misunderstandings. In other words, a person who constantly has to explain or rephrase their speech isn’t really smart at all. They fail at communication.

(Unless their true desire is to communicate their superior knowledge of vocabulary, of course.)

Pragmatics teaches of three different effects to every Speech Act: locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary.

  1. Locutionary Effect: The speaker’s actual words. E.g., A wife turns to her husband in the theater and says, “It’s so cold in here.” She is literally making an observation of the temperature of her immediate surroundings.
  2. Illocutionary Effect: The speaker’s unspoken intent. In the above example, the wife remarks to her husband about the cold because she wants him to do something about it: put his arm around her, give her his coat, commiserate with her, etc. No one simply observes the temperature of a room. At the very least, they want validation.
  3. Perlocutionary Effect: The listener’s reaction. The speaker has little to no control over this element. The husband of our example might put his arm around his wife, or tuck his jacket around her, or shiver beside her. He might just as easily say, “I’m fine,” or “I guess you should have brought a sweater.” And, chances are, his wife will be miffed, because the perlocutionary and illocutionary effects do not match.

Generally, as the speaker, we want the second and third effects to agree with one another. That is good communication. As the listener, though, it’s sometimes fun to flout the speaker’s expectations.

Like, really fun.

The bombastic speaker might intend the subconscious message, “See? Look how smart I am! You should stand in awe of me because I know so many big words!” but the listener can easily receive something along the lines of “I know more words than you! I’m so much smarter and special-er and different-er than you because I know big words! Hurr-de-hurr-hurr!”

Trigger the nerd-mocking.

Code-Switching to the Rescue!

For the record, I’m no enemy of elevated diction. (I mean, seriously, I just used the phrase “elevated diction.”) Certain situations require specialized vocabulary. Sometimes that $5 word is really the perfect descriptor. It all comes down to linguistic codes.

Everyone speaks in codes, both general and restricted. We use and encounter general codes out in the world: the combination of vocabulary, accent, and manner of speaking that best communicates meaning to the greatest number of people. For example, the nightly news aims for a general code, scripted to spread information to the public.

Restricted codes, as their name implies, occur in less popular settings and use a specialized vocabulary, accent, and/or manner of speaking. That silly voice you use with your brothers or sisters or children is a restricted code. Quoting film dialogue with friends is a restricted code. The jargon you speak with your work colleagues is a restricted code.

We have, each of us, dozens upon dozens of restricted codes, and the canny speaker instinctively knows which of these to use in any given situation, as well as whether to switch to a general code for better communication.

When someone fails to code-switch, then, they are sending a message, intended or otherwise: “I’m not like you. I’m different.”

And “different” is always a double-edged sword.