Literary Language or Stock Clichés?

A few days ago one of my friends linked to this article via Google+. I think it’s an interesting article, and, at the very least, it’s a good warning to writers to stay away from stock clichés. I searched through Vanishing Act, the novel I’m currently revising, and was pleased to see I don’t use “bolted upright” or any equivalent form anywhere in the manuscript. I do have one instance of a character “drawing” his breath, though, and a large count of other breath-related phrases (usually the protagonist holding his breath until a danger passes).

I know that I have a bunch of other personal clichés, though, and I wrote about my use of Control-F to mitigate the tendency in my old blog. I use software that essentially creates my own mini “corpus,” looking for those “collocations” in my own writing–though these terms are new to me. [If you’re curious, I subscribe to, a service that has proven extremely valuable in helping me polish my writing.]

The article itself, however, suggests a conclusion that I find questionable:

We like to think that modern fiction, particularly American fiction, is free from the artificial stylistic pretensions of the past. Richard Bridgman expressed a common view in his 1966 book “The Colloquial Style in America.” “Whereas in the 19th century a very real distinction could be made between the vernacular and standard diction as they were used in prose,” Bridgman wrote, “in the 20th century the vernacular had virtually become standard.” Thanks to such pioneers as Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, the story goes, ornate classicism was replaced by a straight-talking vox populi.

Now in the 21st century, with sophisticated text-crunching tools at our disposal, it is possible to put Bridgman’s theory to the test. Has a vernacular style become the standard for the typical fiction writer? Or is literary language still a distinct and peculiar beast?

Zimmer answers his own question in the article’s last paragraph:

While Twain, Hemingway and the rest of the vernacularizers may have introduced more “natural” or “authentic” styles of writing, literature did not suddenly become unliterary simply because the prose was no longer so high-flying. Rather, the textual hints of literariness continue to wash over us unannounced, even as a new kind of brainpower, the computational kind, can help identify exactly what those hints are and how they function.

It’s not clear if the thesis here is Davies’s as well, or Zimmer’s alone. In any case, I don’t have the academic credentials to match wits with either of these guys. But I am a fiction writer, and neither of these folks seems to be, based on their Wikipedia articles. As a writer, I look at the data and reach a different conclusion.

Image courtesy of

One of the things that surprised me, as I was on the steepest part of my learning curve, was realizing that it was not, in fact, possible to express everything in words. Sometimes I’d be struggling to get a scene on the page–I could visualize the situation in glorious clairvoyant Technicolor, with every possible nuance and subtlety one could hope for, and yet find myself struggling to find the right words. Now heck, I have a larger than average vocabulary; that wasn’t the source of my difficulties. So I’d tell myself, Just write the damn words. You know what happens; you know a bunch of words. Go do it!

Yeah, not quite so easy, as it turns out. And I’d ask other folks, to see if maybe my vocabulary really was what was lacking. I’d gesture a certain way or do something with my face and ask, “How would you describe this action?” And none of us would be able to come up with something that would accurately convey the action to a third party that wasn’t present to see the original. We could get awkwardly specific, and kill the scene, but even if we did it wouldn’t convey what we wanted it to. (You’re free to assume that’s all lack of skill on our part, but I suspect more successful authors will back me on this one.)

So while there are countless things you can see or visualize, we writers have a much more limited selection of actions that we can express with little ambiguity. A character can roll her eyes, or raise an eyebrow. She can run her fingers through her hair, or scratch, or rub her chin. She can bite her lip, or knit her brows. (And several of those are troublesome because they’ll get flagged as clichés or as goofy metaphors, a lá “her eyes flashed,” or “her eyes fell.” I maintain that you can’t write teenagers who don’t roll their eyes, though. There ain’t no such thing.)

And yes, we’re encouraged in this era to show and not tell. This is another oft-repeated expression that took me years to really get–assuming, of course, that I really get it now. As noted in the article, the modern sensibility frowns on stating that a character is angry or sad or what have you, so instead we learn to use these expressions as a kind of shorthand for the emotions these actions often signify. (We do have other options, of course. In tight third person you can go ahead and give the POV character’s thoughts to show how she feels. But if you’re in tight, limited third, you still need to use more subtle cues if you want to hint at the emotions of non-POV characters.)

Zimmer notes this in the article:

When we see a character in contemporary fiction “bolt upright” or “draw a breath,” we join in this silent game, picking up the subtle cues . . . The game works best when the writer’s idiomatic English does not scream “This is a novel!” but instead provides a kind of comfortable linguistic furniture to settle into as we read a novel or short story.

I don’t disagree with that (at least not with my ellipses safely in place). Nor do I disagree with the analysis in the discussion of authors’ literary tics, such as Dan Brown’s apparent eyebrow obsession. (Fantasy fans would add Jordan’s hair-tugging. 🙂 )

What I’m inclined to disagree with is the notion that these tics are qualitatively the same as the nineteenth century un-vernacular, un-colloquial style noted by Bridgman in the article’s opening quote. Mark Twain undoubtedly had his own verbal tics, but if we contrast his style with that of, say, Edith Wharton I think we can see the distinction Bridgman was driving at. The existence of clichés, both personal and popular, doesn’t diminish that distinction.

And I don’t think that a phrase having a greater frequency of use in fiction than it does in other types of writing makes it, ipso facto, “unvernacular.” This presupposes that nonfiction writing is the vernacular. I would argue, instead, that a nonfiction writer is going to have little need to refer to anybody bolting anywhere, or to focus on inhaling or on eyebrows.

Actually, now I’ll switch hats for a moment and approach this like a math teacher. You can’t draw a valid conclusion from a single data point. The article links to Davies’s Corpus of Contemporary American English, but he also has a Corpus of Historical American English. Assuming we grant for the moment that nonfiction writing is equivalent to the vernacular, has a similar comparison been done between nineteenth century novels and nineteenth century nonfiction? Has any attempt been made to quantify the presence of collocations unique to fiction in both centuries, and compare the two? If one really intended to “put Bridgman’s theory to the test,” I’d think that would be a necessary comparison to make.

This entry was posted in tech geek, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Literary Language or Stock Clichés?

  1. Jonathon says:

    I don’t think Davies has a thesis here—he does do a lot of analysis, but in this case he’s only provided the data and the tools to sift through it.

    Also, I don’t think the assumption is that nonfiction is the vernacular, but that speech is. I’d guess that nonfiction is further from the vernacular than fiction is. The argument is that fiction writing has come closer to speech, but this research shows that there’s still a distinct gap.

  2. Joe Iriarte says:

    When Zimmer compares fiction collocations to nonfiction collocations and uses the result to cast doubt on the assertion that in fiction writing the vernacular has become standard, how is he not equating nonfiction writing with the vernacular? How does this research show there is a gap, when fiction writing is not compared directly to speech? Also, does this research consider the possibility that the differences that may exist between fiction and speech are different in kind than those that existed over a hundred years ago? In other words, suppose we can conclude that in the nineteenth century, collocations A, B, and C were far more common in fiction than in speech, and that at the turn of the twenty-first century, collocations X, Y, and Z are more common in fiction than in speech. Does that mean that current fiction is as removed from the vernacular as nineteenth century fiction is, or is it possible that the existence of collocations with a greater frequency of use in fiction is not, by itself, enough to make a comparison?

    I don’t think “drew a breath” and “bolt upright” are actually what Bridgman was talking about at all.

  3. Jonathon says:

    Hargraves wasn’t just comparing fiction and nonfiction—he was comparing fiction with speech, magazines, newspapers, and academic writing.

    But I think you’re right about the rest. This study doesn’t look at historical trends, which should be crucial to any claim about modern-day writing being closer to speech, and it (apparently) doesn’t look beyond word usage to broader issues of syntax and style, which are obviously much harder to search for. Vernacular—or any other variety or register—is not simply a list of words and phrases.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.