Season your fiction just right

This article was originally published in NINK, the magazine of Novelists, Inc.

Can you tell when and where (America or England) these passages were written? (And I promise the answers will be revealed.)

  1. When we were summoned to dinner, a young gentleman in a clerical dress offered his hand, and led me to a table furnished with an elegant and sumptuous repast, with more gallantry and address than commonly fall to the share of students.
  2. She wore the hood set back off her square honest face and showed her hair, dark brown with a tinge of Tudor red. Her smile was her great charm: it came slowly, and her eyes were warm. But what struck me most about her was her air of honesty.
  3. I was so vexed to see him stand up with her! But, however, he did not admire her at all; indeed, nobody can, you know; and he seemed quite struck with Jane as she was going down the dance.

Prose is a rich soup with many different seasonings. We know that news stories have a different feel than academic articles, and you can often tell what genre of fiction you’re looking at from a sentence or two. But the seasonings also vary across the centuries – and across the Atlantic. And they vary in ways you may not expect.

The molecular gastronomy of writing

The linguist Douglas Biber performed statistical work on large sets of literature to identify grammatical features that tend to work together to set the tone. He’s found several “dimensions” of variation: the most important of which is between “involved” and “informational.” For example, “I think you’ll see they’re cooking it” is very involved, and “The cooking of the food is evidently being performed” is very informational.

To make a text feel more involved, use more private verbs (e.g., “think”), contractions, present-tense verbs, first- and second-person pronouns, demonstrative pronouns (“this”), and “is,” “am,” and “are” as main verbs. Use fewer nouns and prepositions, drop “that” in relative clauses more often, and use shorter and less varied words. To make it more “informational,” do the opposite.

There are other dimensions as well: “situated” versus “elaborated” has, among other things, longer and more complex sentences in more elaborated text; “abstract” versus “non-abstract” has, among other things, more past participles in more abstract texts.

A sprinkling of phonaesthemes

As I’m also a linguist, I’ve done research on a bit of seasoning that goes along with the others: phonaesthemes. A phonaestheme is a sound cluster that tends to be associated with an area of meaning, even in unrelated words, though not necessarily in all words containing it. Some phonaesthemes evoke noise or motion, like the spl- in splash, splatter, split, and splurge; others do not, like the gl- in words such as gleam, glimmer, glass, and glow.

Words containing phonaesthemes have a more direct and vivid feel; they can make the writer seem more involved – and less dignified. They tend to go together with a more involved and less abstract style. Well-known phonaesthemes include fr- as in frizz and frill; scr- as in scrimp and scrunch; sl- as in slide and slick; sn- as in snout and sniff; spr- as in spread and spray; -url/-irl as in twirl and curl; -ap as in flap and slap; -ash as in dash and crash; -atch as in latch and catch; -op as in hop and pop; and -ump as in hump and slump.

Who used what when

An involved, situated, non-abstract style with more phonaesthemes is relatively common in fiction, especially romance and mysteries, and a bit less so in science fiction. It was a bit less common in fiction a century ago. But you may be surprised by the fiction of two centuries ago.

British fiction of the late 1700s and early 1800s had sentences that are much longer than now, with more passive voice, but its tone is, on average, more involved than in the later 1800s. In fact it’s at least as involved as it is now, and it uses phonaesthemes at least as much. But that’s British fiction. American fiction used even fewer phonaesthemes in the 1700s than in the 1800s and appears to have had a less involved style.

Our three examples at the start of the article illustrate this. The first example (Number 1) is from The Coquette: Or, the History of Eliza Wharton, by Hannah Webster Foster, an American, published in 1797. The second (Number 2) is from The Queen’s Fool, by Philippa Gregory, from England, published in 2004. The third (Number 3) is from – did you guess? – Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, published in 1813.

Class and insecurity

The reason American fiction of the 1700s was less involved and used longer, less phonaesthematic words has to do with to class, literacy, and insecurity. Two hundred years ago,people who wrote – and read – books in England were, on average, of higher class, secure in their social status. In America at the time, on the other hand, they were up-and-comers. As literacy spread in both countries during the 1800s, it included more people who wanted to be upwardly mobile. Status-insecure writing uses more formal words and tone and strives to sound less personally involved; it avoids anything that the author is afraid might seem undignified, such as phonaesthemes. And more writers of the late 1800s (and of 1700s America) were insecure in their status.

Adjust the seasoning

Let’s try adjusting our sample passages. We’ll make The Coquette more involved – perhaps like a British author of the time. We can take out the passive, use some shorter words, and add a phonaestheme (“spread”):

When they called us to dinner, a young gentleman in a clerical dress offered his hand; with more gallantry and form than one expects from students, he led me to a table spread with an elegant and sumptuous feast.

Let’s take The Queen’s Fool in the opposite direction–merge sentences, use a passive, increase nouns and prepositions, and get rid of “struck”:

Her hood was worn set back off her square honest face, displaying her hair, which was dark brown with a tinge of Tudor red; a charming smile, slow in arriving; warm eyes; and, most prepossessing, an air of honesty.

What about if Pride and Prejudice had been written in America at the time?

I was so particularly displeased to see him arise with her. However, he had no admiration for her; indeed, nobody has, as is well known; and he seemed to have a distinct attraction to Jane as she was going down the dance.

But wait. How about if it had been written in 2004?

I was so vexed to see him stand up with her! But he didn’t admire her. Nobody can, you know. And it seemed Jane struck his fancy as she was going down the dance.

The differences are subtle but effective… and all through just a few simple adjustments of the seasonings listed above.

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