pragmatics

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.

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†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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Excessive Expressive Dialogue Tags | Liar, Liar

Continuing in our series of literary barrier objects, we delve into the boondoggle of excessive, expressive dialogue tags.

The Basics

A dialogue tag, as its name implies, marks who speaks a line of dialogue. It can be an attributive tag or an action tag.

  • Attributive: “That’s nice,” Mary said.
  • Action: “That’s nice.” Mary wiped her hands off on her shirt.

Both types indicate who spoke, but the action tag earns more points because it adds movement to the narrative.

This post deals primarily with attributive tags. That being said, beware the overuse of action tags, particularly if they involve a character turning, looking, staring, etc. Actions should pack a punch, not whiffle their rhetorical impotence against the air.

And thus we begin.

Excessive Dialogue Tags

When every line of dialogue gets a tag (action or attributive), those tags become barriers to the conversation. This form of tagging is great for first drafts, so that the author can keep track of character back-and-forth, but it needs paring in the editing phase.

Long story short: the author who informs their reader which character is speaking every single line demonstrates a lack of trust in their audience’s ability to follow a conversation. Don’t be that distrustful author.

(Although, admittedly, I’d much rather there were too many tags than too few. I haaaaate having to go back and count lines to figure out who’s talking.)

Expressive Dialogue Tags

I fought this one for years, y’all. Every writer has heard the adage, “Show, don’t tell.” Inevitably, expressive dialogue tags get paraded out as the prime violation to this guideline.

It’s the ongoing battle of the editors vs. the middle school English teachers. One says only to use “said” and “asked,” while the other gives out lists of alternatives and makes assignments for students to write whole stories without using “said” at all.

word cloud dialogue tags

It’s not a matter of one being right and the other wrong. Tagging dialogue with a descriptive speech word instead of the blasé “said” or “asked” is a form of both show and tell, depending on which layer of language you’re looking at.

  • On the semantic layer, you’re telling the reader how the character spoke.
  • On the pragmatic layer, you’re showing the character’s mood through their manner of speech.

So why should semantics win out over pragmatics? It doesn’t always have to. Sometimes telling the speech style fits better in the flow of the story. (Show and tell should have balance anyway, or stories risk becoming overwrought.) But the battle between these two layers gets tipped, because there’s a third layer of language involved:

  • On the syntax layer, you’re telling the reader who spoke any time you use a dialogue tag at all.

Attributive tags blatantly remind the reader that they are reading a book. The sole purpose of these tags is to clarify who says what, but if that information is already clear, they become redundant. (Yet another reason to use action tags more often.)

If you need to give attribution, the boring “said” and “asked” can easily fade into the narrative background, whereas more expressive tags mark this already-conspicuous construct further.

A Small Addition

In this category of “expressive dialogue tags,” we also include the “said + [adverb]” construct. In general, we use adverbs to prop up weak verbs. However, we use “said” specifically because it is weak, and thus largely invisible. If you’re changing “he snapped” to “he said angrily” for the sole purpose of eliminating expressive tags, you’re better off leaving it as “he snapped.”

(Although, admittedly, I love me some beautiful adverb usage, and I admire writers who toss them in without worrying about calling down the wrath of armchair editors everywhere. So.)

Excessive, Expressive Dialogue Tags

Our barrier object of excessive, expressive dialogue tags manifests when dialogue tags become so frequent and so flamboyant that they interrupt the story to call attention to themselves. Consider this passage from Chapter 3 of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865):

excessive expressive dialogue tags in Wonderland

In this exchange between only two characters, every line of dialogue is tagged. We have said, cried, and pleaded, along with modifiers severely, humbly, sharply, and angrily. The excessive, expressive tags not only appear on every line, but they draw further attention through lack of pronoun use. (It’s always “Alice” or “the Mouse” speaking, never “she” or “it.”)

The barrier, then, becomes two-fold:

  1. The tags interrupt the spoken dialogue of each character, with sentence structure that blocks the flow of the full line of speech.
  2. That interruption in turn prevents narrative immersion, creating a block between the reader and the story.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the “I had not!” line of dialogue, whose subsequent tag might cause the reader to miss the joke in Alice’s response. “A knot? Oh, do let me help undo it!”

Carroll gets a pass because A) he’s writing in the mid-1800s and B) he’s writing for a young audience. Today this style of dialogue would be more prevalent in early-reader chapter books. It should reduce with Middle Grade and disappear from YA/Adult genres altogether.

A Good Barrier

Dialogue tags can gum up a conversation, but they can also act as pauses for when a character doesn’t rattle off their full line of dialogue in one go. Take this line from the excerpt above:

“A knot!” said Alice, always ready to make herself useful, and looking anxiously about her. “Oh, do let me help to undo it!”

The action of Alice searching for this supposed knot very nicely punctuates her first exclamation from her second. And while, had I been Carroll’s editor, I likely would have eliminated the “said” and made “looked” the main verb of the sentence (my above caveat against “looked” et al. notwithstanding), the placement of the tag in context really is lovely.

I’m also a fan of the occasional expressive attributive tag. They flavor a narrative when you can’t always shove an action into the mix, and they do it succinctly.

When used with care, dialogue tags of all types can become an asset rather than an obstacle.

However, One Final Caveat

With regards to expressive dialogue tags, beware mistaking action tags for attributive ones. You can’t shrug a line of dialogue. Or grin it. Or chuckle it. These and other similar tags are actions separate from speech. More specifically, they’re intransitive verbs, so they can’t structurally take a line of dialogue as their object.

(Because, as intransitives, they can’t take objects at all. Haha.)

/prescriptivism

***

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Too Much Information | Liar, Liar

Too much information quoteWordiness is a classic tell for deception. Instinct says that if you have all the information, no one will question your story. Sadly, instinct is wrong.

In Real Life

Too much information triggers skepticism in your audience even if they don’t overtly detect the lie itself.

A Cornell University study in 2004 paired 66 participants for text-based conversations. The researchers were studying online communication, but in a form that precluded video or audio input. (This becomes relevant to us as writers because text is our treasured medium for dialogue.)

Before the study began, the researchers pulled half the participants aside and instructed them to lie about two of the five topics they would discuss. They gave the liars five minutes to prepare, and the study went forward.

None of the lies were detected.

However, when the researchers went back and analyzed the conversations, they discovered that the liars used approximately 30% more words when they lied than when they told the truth.

That’s right. Fabrication bloated their word count by a healthy 30%.

But that’s not all.

Those being lied to used more words in response to the lies. Of greater significance, they also asked more questions. Somewhere in their brain, whether conscious or subconscious, their skepticism triggered and reacted.

Wordiness breeds skepticism.

Too Much Information In Writing

As fiction writers, we already have one strike against us. Somewhere behind that suspension of disbelief, our audience knows we’re making stuff up. When we glut them with too many details, we stoke that instinct to overthink, to question.

In your average novel, too much information can appear in the following forms:

  • Backstory info dumps
  • Wall-o’-text setting descriptions
  • So Much explanatory narration
  • The Never-ending Introspection
  • ALL THE WORLDBUILDING!!1!

We’ve all been there, stuck reading a book where the narrator rattles on for pages and pages about ultimately skim-able schlock. The MC’s entire life history. Every piece of furniture crammed into a room, including its age, style, material, and exact spacial placement. Memories and mental processing ad nauseam.

If it plays into the plot, it’s either tangential, or grossly inefficient.

Symptom of a Greater Problem

This degree of detail reveals an author too afraid to trust their reader. They exercise tight control over every angle of their story, lest the reader form an inaccurate picture of events.

But books, despite their fixed sequence of words on the page, are not static. Every reader recreates them anew, informed in that creation by individual experience and understanding. No two readers will ever produce the same mental imagery for a book.

And that’s a good thing.

One of the most powerful tools an author can access is their reader’s imagination, but imagination intrinsically thrives on the unknown. The engaged reader will pick up on subtle cues and run with them. They’ll fill in minor gaps for scenery and settings in their anticipation for what is yet to come.

You might have in mind the exact 19th century antique mahogany Chippendale dresser that graces your main character’s boudoir. But do you really want your reader’s brainpower focused on trying to conjure its likeness? Unless it plays a central role in your plot, the answer is no. Details should be evocative, not completely inaccessible, and not so profuse that they overwhelm.

Clot your story with too much information, and your reader’s imagination may well fail to spark.

A Worldbuilding Caveat

Worldbuilding can be an author’s best friend and their worst enemy at the same time. The greatest problem with these exercises, from the simple to the mind-bogglingly complex, is the danger that they might trick us into including all those details in our book.

We did the work. We created monetary systems and team sports and land formations and political dynasties, and we can’t let it all go to waste. The reader needs to know we did our work.

Except that the reader doesn’t need to know. They need a final draft polished and focused upon its themes, not a glut of extra information that muddles more than it enhances.

Worldbuilding is awesome and empowering, but its primary purpose is to acquaint the writer with the inner and outer workings of their own creation. When we shoehorn every last category or detail into our draft, we’re just as likely to inspire annoyance as awe.

Too much information weakens a story. (As my next post will illustrate.)

***

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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

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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.

Elevated by Experience

AverageEverygirl087

If you’re anything like me, you do a lot of things in life “for the experience.”

“Hey, yeah, let’s try that roller coaster where you hang suspended with your feet dangling out over nothing.”

“Wheat grass? Sure, give me a shot of that.”

“Ice skating? Why not?”

(For the record, I’ve never been ice skating. I do know my limits.)

The world is full of so many sights and sounds and smells that “for the experience” opens up a playground of learning. We travel “for the experience.” We take internships “for the experience.” Experience broadens our understanding and refines our ability to empathize.

One place this line doesn’t work, however, is in any activity that involves competition. Sure, someone may go into it thinking, “I’m excited to see what this is like,” with absolutely no expectation of winning—or of even placing—but in the aftermath, they’re not allowed to talk about that.

The instant they lose, “for the experience” becomes a semi-pathetic excuse.

Person A: “Oh, I joined that tournament for the experience of it. It was great.”

Person B: “Yeah, sure you did, buddy.”

Person A: “No, really. I knew I didn’t have a chance at winning. I didn’t even check the leaderboard.”

Person B: “Uh-huh. You know, it’s okay that you lost. The winners were all really good.”

Person A: “I know it’s okay, and I wasn’t trying to win. I just wanted to have some fun.”

Person B: “Right. Okay.”

Somehow, the more Person A insists, the less truthful they sound. “The lady doth protest too much, methinks,” as Shakespeare penned.

Certain patterns of speech fall under what pragmatists term “marked” or “dispreferred” behaviors. Repetition is one of these, along with hesitations, hedges, false starts, and wordiness. Such dispreferred behaviors run counter to the listener’s conversational expectations and thereby signal the listener to question the speaker’s truthfulness.

Truth, you see, is generally straightforward and non-excuse-making.

Generally.

Thus, when the listener already has cause to question a line of speech—as in the case where someone claims disinterest for winning a competition in which they participated when the very purpose of competition is to compete—then repetition of the information only augments that skepticism all the more.

So where does that leave those of us who really do engage in such activities “for the experience”?

One method is to acknowledge the failure outright in the aftermath. This disarms the assumption that the speaker is making excuses for their weakness:

“Yeah, I failed spectacularly, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, you know?”

or

“I had no business being among all those greats. I was so lucky just to be on the same playing field.”

or

“On the one hand, it sucks that I didn’t stand a chance, but on the other, I learned a ton.”

Humility goes a long way toward establishing bona fide communication. Paradoxically, we save face by undercutting ourselves from the start rather than allowing someone else to do it for us. In contrast, downplaying failure, even when it was genuinely expected, comes across as prideful: the speaker frames themselves as above competition, above the plebeian masses who strive to succeed in that venue.

They invite skepticism, in other words.

Human communication abounds with these built-in nuances. We instinctively sift and evaluate the information we receive from others. We filter the information we send. Like a dance, the steps are pre-determined, and anything out of line may well tromp on toes.

Also like a dance, all the study in the world won’t perfect the art. You have to get out on the floor and practice and fail and practice again.

You know. For the experience.

Because sometimes that’s not just the best way to learn; it’s the only way.

Always Ask the Right Questions

AverageEverygirl084; interrogative moodOh, the Interrogative Mood! What fun it brings to communication!

Here’s a quick run-down:

Direct Questions

Direct questions come in question/answer pairs, where the answer only fully makes sense in the context of the question asked.

Q. Who was the first president of the United States?
A. George Washington.

Q. Where are my shoes?
A. They’re under the table.

Q. How did you get here so fast?
A. I was already in the neighborhood.

None of these answers make conversational sense on their own. The person who randomly states, “George Washington” or “I was already in the neighborhood” is going to catch a lot of side-eye for it.

Also, the person asking these questions places their trust in the listener to give a truthful answer. The direct question always seeks truth (and thereby provides a nice avenue for the listener to mess with a gullible questioner, haha).

Indirect Questions

Indirect questions aren’t looking for verbal answers, necessarily—or, if they are, it’s not the literal answer to the question asked. Indirect questions skirt around an issue. They pull politeness into the equation and communicate a need beyond their literal meaning.

Q. Have you seen Jane?
Translation: Tell me where Jane is, if you know.

Q. May I help you?
Translation: You look out of your element, and I am offering assistance.

Q. Can I please get by?
Translation: Move your ill-positioned carcass out of the way, roadblock.

This class of questions allows for conversational flouting, particularly if the audience decides to read them as direct questions instead:

Q. Have you seen Jane?
A. Yes. She’s a tall blonde with a snaggle-toothed grin.

Q. May I help you?
A. Looks kind of doubtful from where I’m standing.

Q. Can I please get by?
A. I don’t know. Can you?

Non-verbal responses can have the same dynamic of cooperation or flouting. For example, someone who asks “Can I please get by?” expects the other individual to move aside, with or without verbal acknowledgement; the second person might just as easily stand their ground in defiance or ignore the question entirely.

Rhetorical Questions

Rhetorical Questions aren’t looking for any answer at all. Rhetoric, as the art of persuasion, aims to shape the listener’s mind. The speaker isn’t seeking information, but imparting it. Thus, the question is designed to make its audience think, but not necessarily respond.

Q. Do you have any idea what time it is?
Rhetorical intent: Shame on you for losing track of time and/or causing me to worry.

Q. Does this look like a game to you?
Rhetorical intent: This is srs bsns. Wipe that grin off your face.

Q. Ain’t I a woman? (h/t Sojourner Truth)
Rhetorical intent: My life is just as valuable as any other woman—as any other human—on this planet.

The rhetorical question provides a means for drawing the listener into the same mindset as the speaker, but, like the indirect question, can also open the door for sass, particularly if the listener is at odds with the speaker. It also loses its oomph if the listener takes it literally and tries to answer.

Tag Questions

The tag question can seek either information or validation. It’s not freestanding, but appends to a declarative statement:

  • You like strawberries, right?
  • Paul can sing, can’t he?
  • Mary wasn’t at the party, was she?

The answer to a tag question can be a simple yes or no, but it can also be an explanation of conditions. E.g., “I like strawberries fresh, but not freeze-dried.” “Paul hasn’t sung since high school.” “Mary came at the beginning, but she left after ten minutes.”

Tag questions in English are particularly fun. We can, like other languages, append a simple, “isn’t that so?” or “right?” or “correct?” to our statements, but the primary English tag-question structure involves a mirror opposite of the original statement.

Tag Formation

We form this structure by using a negative of the declarative auxiliary and a subject-matching pronoun (and, as with any Declarative-to-Interrogative transition, if there’s no auxiliary in the main sentence, “do” jumps in to take the role):

  • You could come early → couldn’t you?
  • Jim got home late → didn’t he?
  • He’s not supposed to be here → is he?

The combo-breaker for this pattern is the first-person singular, when the auxiliary is “be” and the declarative is positive. Compare the two following examples:

  • I’m not singing → am I?
  • I’m singing → aren’t I?

“Oh, nope! I aren’t!”

Some people like to use “am I not?” as the tag question. And by “some people” I mean “stuffy people and sticklers.” The grammatically correct contraction would be amn’t, a’n’t—or, more colloquially, ain’t. But since we ran that term out of proper speech a century or two ago, we get aren’t as a fill-in.

Serves us right.

The negative stands on one side of the structure but not on the other, which cues the listener to give a confirmation or denial of the declarative statement. It also helps the speaker save face: rather than stating something which might be refuted and make them look uninformed, they invite the refutation from the outset, appearing open-minded instead.

Final Words

And an interesting social note: women are far more likely than men to use tag questions. Two possible explanations for this phenomenon are that we inherently desire more validation, or that we’re used to having our spoken statements challenged.

I won’t go into which I find more likely. It’s an interesting dynamic either way, don’t you think?

EDIT 2/23/18: A commenter below has drawn it to my attention that the colloquial “women use tags more than men” assertion has dubious truth value, so I’m striking it from the article. Long story short, tag use is a whole lot more complex than it might appear at a glance.

But it does make a fascinating addition to the Interrogative Mood, doesn’t it?

(*wink*)

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.