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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.

***

Up next: Case Study: Miss Bates of Jane Austen’s Emma

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Filter Verbs | Liar, Liar

The next offender in our sequence of barrier objects is a big one: filter verbs.

Filter Verbs Defined

  1. She felt the cold November wind wafting through the window.
  2. He knew his horse would find the way.
  3. She watched him approach.

What do all of these sentences have in common? They all use filter verbs.

You may or may not have heard the term before. Some people call them “tell” verbs (as opposed to “show” verbs, from the infamous writer’s adage, “Show, don’t tell”). Some refer to them as sensory verbs. They appear when the focal character filters the narrative through their lens of experience, a rhetorical bottleneck between the reader and the action.

The category of filter verbs does include your standard sensory verbs, but also anything that happens inside a character’s head. And inevitably, any prescriptive discussion of these offenders produces a list of words to avoid.

­

Filter Verbs word art

I don’t like these lists. They’re never all-inclusive (because they can’t be), and they fail to address the underlying issue. Writers eliminate one filter only to replace it with another, because it’s not a word problem at all but a structural one.

So here’s the skinny on identifying filter verbs:

It is a filter verb if the character is making an observation instead of acting or being acted upon.

In linguistics, we call these “verbs that assign an experiencer argument to their subject.” And really, there’s nothing structurally wrong with them. The issue lies in our layers of dialogue. Your reader is supposed to be the experiencer. Filter verbs make them experience events second-hand instead of immersing them in the story.

The “experiencing” character becomes the barrier.

The Syntax of Filter Verbs

Filters form a barrier in sentence structure itself. To illustrate this, take a look at the x-bar diagram for Sentence #3 from our list of examples above.

Filter verbs in a minimalist syntax tree

According to minimalist syntax, everything with concrete meaning starts in the Verb Phrase (VP), and certain elements take on grammar by moving up into the Tense Phrase (TP).

(C’mon. Deglaze your eyes.)

Now imagine yourself standing at the head of that sentence, by the letters TP in the picture. To get to the lexical meat, the action, you have to wade through the filter first.

2 Relevant Principles of Syntax:

  1. The beginning of a sentence carries the most rhetorical weight.
  2. Our brains are hard-wired to look for the tense-bearing verb. In a sentence with more than one verb, the main tense-bearing verb gets our focus. (It’s categorized as most important, in other words.)

Filter verbs work against us on both of these principles. Is a character “watching” more important than a character “approaching”? The inclusion of such implies that it is.

(But spoiler alert: it’s not.)

Writers instinctively filter as a way to pull readers into their characters’ heads, but ironically, it creates distance instead. Essentially, a reader for Sentence #3 is watching someone watch someone else. If we swap the verb structures, we can see exactly how superfluous the filter is:

  • He approached while she watched.
  • His horse would find the way, he knew.
  • The cold November wind wafted through the window; she felt it.

And suddenly, no one cares about the observer. Why? Because any importance their observation carried was tied to sentence position, not to a greater semantic or pragmatic message.

Ditching the Filter

If you write in 1st Person or 3rd Person Limited Omniscient, your character’s observations are built into the point of view. We know they see something because if they didn’t see it, it wouldn’t show up in the narration of events.

Filters, then, become redundant. Their elimination can tighten prose and shift focus to the more interesting action of the story. You can rewrite passages to eliminate filters, but removal of this barrier doesn’t have to be difficult.

Often, a more active verb lurks beyond the filter.

Example #1

  • ­The man felt a strange knot twisting his insides, warning him to flee.

­

Here we have our filter with a more engaging participle in its compliment. If we ditch the filter, “twisting” gets elevated to the finite verb position:

  • A strange knot twisted the man’s insides, warning him to flee.

And suddenly, that knot is twisting your insides too. A simple shift in tense-bearing verbs allows the reader to experience such action directly instead of getting a watered-down account.

Example #2

  • She saw a flex of wings along its blurred back.

Here the filter is the only verb (because “blurred” serves as an adjective). However, we do have indirect action packed into the noun, “flex.” So, the un-filtered version becomes

  • Wings flexed along its blurred back.

Which is far more dynamic than its original incarnation.

Some filters point to a different grammatical mood in their unfiltered form.

Example #3

  • ­She thought she saw a flex of wings along its blurred back.

The combined filters in “she thought she saw” create an uncertainty, and that points to the Interrogative Mood. Un-filtered, this example turns into a question:

  • ­Was that a flex of wings along its blurred back?

Was it? We don’t know. The reader gets to wonder alongside the focal character, drawing out tension in the scene.

Removing filters leads to a more immersive reading experience because it engages the reader directly with the action. They see and feel and experience alongside characters instead of processing events second-hand.

When Filtering Is Good

As with all our barrier objects, filter verbs function best when they have a witting purpose. They’re excellent in dialogue, when one character needs to communicate experiences to another. In narration, they allow moments of introspection, often necessary in character development and plot progression.

They allow, too, distance. There may come occasions in your story where you want to push your reader back a step. Filters very calmly, very cleanly accomplish this feat.

Particularly when used with restraint.

***

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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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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.

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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.

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Contractions or the Lack Thereof | Liar Liar

Pamela Meyer quote formal language contractionsWe begin our basic patterns of deception with an easy fix: lack of contractions.

In Real Life

Authentic human speech patterns include slurring words together. We have always had contractions in the English language. It’s how we got words like “never” (OE not + ever), “none” (OE not + one), and “neither” (OE not + whether). Contractions contributed to the loss of inflectional endings, and they led to our genitive case getting marked with -’s instead of its full syllable -es from a thousand years ago.

A lack of contractions, then, points to inauthenticity. Liars often deny without using them, “I did not,” rather than “I didn’t.” The liar instinctively emphasizes their innocence with that non-contracted “not.” The truly innocent person, in contrast, has more interest in quickly refuting a false allegation rather than trying to convince their listener of their sincerity.

Thanks to hundreds of years of grammar classes, we associate non-contracted speech with higher formality. If a speaker takes the time to enunciate all their words instead of contracting them together, they must mean Serious Business.

Or, they’re trying to assert authority so that people won’t question them.

Which, generally, hoists a red flag that something is amiss.

Contractions In Writing

The “No contractions” rule applies to high school essays, enforced by teachers who want their students to treat assignments like the Serious Business they are. It doesn’t apply to fiction or creative nonfiction.

Use of contractions brings more authentic speech patterns to dialogue and narration alike. It should be the rule of thumb rather than the exception.

What exceptions, then, exist? I can think of two off the top of my head.

  1. Liars. If you have a character telling lies, giving them a non-contracted denial is a nice, subtle cue.
  2. Foreign language learners. Speakers of English as a foreign language are less likely to contract words early on in their language learning. Similarly, if you have a character learning a second language, but where that language is still represented through English (a fantasy language, for example, where you’re not about to pull a Tolkien and your readers wouldn’t understand it even if you did), use of more formal language patterns can give an impression of careful speaking.

I’m not the language police. Ultimately, each writer decides how best to implement contractions in their work. But if you abstain, don’t be surprised when I assign crazy accents to your characters to balance out their stilted speech patterns.

Caveats

  • Triple contractions are seeing more use, but proceed with caution in this vein. Words like shouldn’t’ve, couldn’t’ve, wouldn’t’ve, I’d’ve, we’d’ve, they’d’ve, etc. have more traction in their written forms than the less common I’ll’ve, we’ll’ve, she’ll’ve, won’t’ve, etc., but any and all of these can trip up a reader if used too liberally. We’ve not yet gotten to the point of quadruple contractions, that I know of, but I’d’n’t’ve approved if we had.
  • Lack of contractions ≠ “archaic.” Shakespeare used ’em a’plenty. Archaic contractions are different than modern ones, however, because their clitics (the left-over word fragments that attach to their stronger friends) formed from the front end rather than the back. For example, archaic contractions of “it is” and “it was” give us the now-archaic ’tis and ’twas, as opposed to the modern contraction it’s.

Long story short, if you need someone’s blessing to feel comfortable using contractions in your work, consider it bestowed. This is an easy fix for better authenticity.

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Standing on Formality

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I was raised on the King James Version of The Bible (the good ol’ KJV). In addition to its spiritual tutelage, this translation quite nicely programmed my brain with archaic language structures, a blessing for which I am eternally grateful.

Because, apparently, the distinctions between thou/thee and ye/you are not all that easy to pick up or keep track of (to say nothing of the 2nd and 3rd person agreement markers on verbs).

My parents taught me to pray using thou and thee to address the Lord. It’s a custom in my religion, though members follow it to varying degrees depending on how comfortable they are with these archaic pronouns (and there’s certainly nothing wrong with addressing Him with the modern you). We even hear on occasion that use of this bygone form of address shows a heightened reverence and respect toward deity.

By its very nature, archaic language, especially that associated with religious texts, takes on rhetorical features of formality, respect, perhaps even antiquated stuffiness.

The thou/thee/thy/thine of yesteryear, however, was anything but formal.

In the Old English period, the distinction between thou/thee and ye/you (or þu/þe and ge/eow, as they then appeared) was simple. Thou/thee referred to one person. Ye/you referred to more than one.

(Fun fact: There was also a dual case of pronouns in OE—git/inc in the 2nd person—that served to address exactly two persons, but it was in decline long before the end of that era, with only 1st and 2nd person forms attested.)

The singular/plural distinction between these two sets of pronouns suffered a heavy blow in A.D. 1066. For all you non-linguist, non-historians out there, that was the year Guillaume le Bâtard decided he’d had enough of his derogatory surname and crossed the Channel. He slaughtered Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings, and called himself William the Conqueror from that point onward.

And he brought his Norman French with him, forever changing the linguistic landscape of the British Isles.

French, like English of yore, has distinct 2nd person singular and plural pronouns: tu and vous. There’s an added element to these pronouns, however: familiarity and politeness. If you are being polite, you always use the plural pronoun, vous. They even have specific verbs to request or correct pronoun usage:

  • tutoyer (“On peut se tutoyer?” = “May I address you with the informal tu?”)
  • vouvoyer (“Ne me vouvoie pas.” = “Don’t address me with the formal vous.”)

This familiar/polite distinction shows up in Middle English. Thou shifts from being merely singular to also indicating a close relationship. Ye picks up the slack for singular polite communication (and quickly gets absorbed into its object form, you).

And so begins the downward spiral of thou into obscurity.

Once politeness came into play, the familiar form fell out of use. It was already well into its decline in the 1520s when William Tyndale implemented it in his defiant English translation of the Bible. It was positively archaic in 1611 when the KJV was published. But since the King James scholars lifted their translation almost wholesale from Tyndale, its appearance there should shock no one.

Tyndale was a canny scholar, inspired, enlightened, determined, and far-seeing. Perhaps he used thee/thou/thy/thine simply to distinguish singular vs. plural pronoun translations. I prefer to think he chose his pronouns deliberately, though, that he recognized their colloquial use and the relationships they implied.

I respect the modern sense of reverence and formality that surrounds this archaic case, but peeling back that layer to the history that lies beneath communicates an added meaning for me. In addressing my God with thou and thee I acknowledge a kinship, an exquisitely personal relationship with the Only One who knows me perfectly, the Only One with whom politeness gives way to loving familiarity.

Those simple bygone pronouns, for me, stand as a symbol of the Lord’s grace, and of the beautiful, individual connection that binds me to Him.

Sometimes, politeness isn’t everything, and formality is only a façade.

When Someone Has an Axe to Grind

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We find one of the longest battles in English linguistic history in that simple, problematic word “ask.” You wouldn’t think that three small letters could cause so much trouble, but you would be wrong. Nowadays, someone using the pronunciation of “aks” (or “ax,” as it’s commonly written) gets painted as ignorant or lower class.

When really, it’s been a dialect issue from the beginning.

If you look up “ask” in the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymology section will provide you with 40+ different spellings that have been used over the past thousand years. Old English used both acsian and ascian (but note that it’s also generally accepted that “sc” was pronounced like modern “sh” rather than “sk”). Middle English, true to its nature, has a dozen or more variations, depending on which dialect of English the written work comes from, and a good number of them use the letter x.

In other words, over the course of English history, it has not been at all uncommon to axe someone a question. In fact, for a good stretch in the Middle Ages, it appears to have been the standard.

Tell this to a modern Grammar Nazi, though, and you’re taking your life into your hands. (I did once. All I got in return was a hard stare and a single word: “NO.” I still get the giggles thinking about it.)

When two sounds in a word switch places, it’s called metathesis. This is a natural linguistic phenomenon. It’s the reason people sometimes pronounce prescribe as “perscribe” or nuclear as “nu-kyu-lar.” And, oddly enough, it probably has less to do with the speaker’s education and more to do with the ever mysterious brain-to-mouth process.

Nuclear is a fun one to look at. One of my professors back in the day pointed out that there are only, like, three words in the English language that end in that particular sound combination (the two-syllable “KLEE-er” as opposed to a one-syllable “KLEER” or “KLIR”), and that the other two are obscure. (I still don’t know what they are, so I can’t tell if he was being hyperbolic or literal; I can only report the anecdote.)

Meanwhile, you have particular, molecular, ocular, circular, spectacular, and dozens upon dozens of others than end in –cular: a quick Google search yields a list of 105, many of which have the scientific/medical context that someone might associate with nuclear.

In that respect, metathesis to “nu-kyu-lar” doesn’t seem so far-fetched. The sound cluster is a common linguistic pattern. (And this professor was a pioneer for Analogical Modeling, so patterns played a huge part of his research.)

Similarly, pronouncing ask as “ax” isn’t such a stretch either. The consonant cluster “sk” occurs less frequently than “ks”—so much so that we have a single letter in our alphabet that can represent the second cluster (much love to you, letter x), while the first is always two letters or more. Plus, “sk” requires slightly more effort to articulate.

Go on. Say the two sounds against one another.

sk-sk-sk-sk

ks-ks-ks-ks

I’m not going to say that people are linguistically lazy, but we all slur letters and drop syllables. I mean, really. Who’s vocab’s perf? Obvi erryone’s had this awks convo wi’ th’r fams, amirite?

The Path of Least Linguistic Resistance is almost a birthright, and metathesis is one of its many variables. If chronic mispronunciation really is a brain-to-mouth process issue, calling someone out for it would be akin to mocking someone who has a speech impediment.

But whatevs. Do what you want.

(Just remember, though: on the Grand Scale of Time, you might be the one who’s saying things wrong. Language change is funny like that.)

 

Verbs, Part 5: Copulas and Existentials

This post covers two essential constructs most commonly associated with the verb to be.

Objectives:

  1. Demonstrate understanding of copulas and existentials.
  2. Eliminate the existential construct in favor of a stronger subject and main verb.

Skill Level: Intermediate

Copulas, AKA Linking Verbs

In English, the term “copula” (or “linking verb”) refers to a verb that links a subject  and a subject predicate. (The subject predicate, as indicated by its name, takes a nominative case.) The copula serves as a sort of grammatical placeholder and holds little lexical meaning despite its grammatical and rhetorical purpose.

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Verbs, Part 2: Tense, Mood, and Aspect

This post covers the verb features of Tense, Mood, and Aspect. It’s boring, and I’ve put off writing it forever because it’s boring.

Objectives:

  1. Define the verb features of Tense, Mood, and Aspect.
  2. Supply the correct form for a set of given verbs and features.

Skill level: intermediate

“The past and the future walked into a bar. It was tense.”

As grammar jokes go, this one is fairly awful. (But I laugh all the same, of course, because my sense of humor apparently sprouted in one of our local corn fields.) Of the verb features, Tense is probably the easiest to understand. Mood, and Aspect were once these nebulous terms to me, conditions that I understood existed but that I couldn’t pinpoint or keep track of. A fourth verb feature, Voice, merits its own post and will be discussed only minimally here.

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