It has always fascinated me how we relate to language. We use it every day, constantly and quite skillfully. Yet we know little about how it works.
Think of it. We yell at the dog to get him off the sofa. We pause a moment to make sure we have actually scared the damn thing away, then we resume our chatting on the phone with our friend. Later on, when our spouse gets home we say hello to him, or her, and ask about their day. Finally, we promptly adopt motherese to speak to our three year old daughter, who has just come out of her room screaming like a banshee. Or maybe not if we are males. But still adapt our speech to our child’s ability to understand and process information.
With writing pretty much the same applies. We’re able to tell a well written work from a badly botched one. We know when we’re facing a page marred with sheer stupid legalese. We process in entirely different ways an instruction manual from a book of poems. And, sometimes, we even find beauty in all those strangely arranged signs on a page.
Yet, we know little about the deepest mechanics of language.
At first blush this ignorance seems to give rise to a paradoxical situation. In reality, however, there’s no paradox at all. After all to run a 100-meters dash we don’t need to know anything about leverages and physics. We just decide to run as fast as we can and then our brain, mostly on a subconscious level, takes care of the rest.
In most occasions this approach is fine. Especially when we don’t want to compete with anyone, or when the goal we’re after is easily within reach,
For example, if you want to cross the road, and notice in the distance a car is approaching at a snail’s pace, you only need to jog at a very easy pace to reach the other side of the road with a comfortable safety margin.
But if the car is racing toward you at full throttle you’d better put in a majestic effort to get on the other side before you get run over. In this latter case knowing about dynamics, leverages, mass, and inertia can help us decide whether to cross or not.
A tool to understand how we relate to language
Linguistics tries to do the same with language. It tries to explain the inner workings of language in such a way you can study it and use it more and more proficiently. It gives you the tools to understand your linguistic behavior (your crossing the road), that of the others (the incoming car), and the context you find yourself in (the road).
Unfortunately more often than not when I happen to read some linguistic paper I tend to feel overwhelmed and helpless. Not because I don’t know anything about linguistics, which is not the case, but because the task of precisely defining language’s inner workings is daunting.
I mean, to describe in linguistic terms even half a page of prose scholars tend to use up dozens and dozens of pages. Besides, depending on the theories and frameworks they support they often come up with quite different explanations.
This fragmentation is certainly proof of a field that is lively and abuzz with scientific debate. But for those who want to improve their writing style it can be bewildering to get their bearings in such a fluid arena. However, the biggest problem with linguistic analysis is also that often such papers focus on one or, at best, a quite restricted set of features.
As a result these papers can involuntarily seem to suggest something that isn’t really there.
The importance of context
For example, years ago I read an analysis of a short story. The work in question was by an extremely famous and influential writer of the past century. In the analysis the scholar described the way such writer had used progressively shorter and shorter sentences to convey the reader a sense of urgency.
To be honest, the short story had indeed shorter and shorter sentences toward the end. But I felt that shortness wasn’t at all what made the story accelerate. It was only a part of a bigger and more articulate picture.
For example, read the following two versions of the same fragment I’ve written.
1) Time to go. The ship is here. I must make my mind up. To go or not to go? It’s a simple choice, but not an easy one. My body is tingling with expectation. But my mind is full of fears and questions.
My legs carry me on. I can’t stop them. But if I close my eyes I can still see Martha’s face. Those hazelnut eyes. The hair framing her face. Her smile.
I ache at the thought of leaving her. But I can’t stop. I’ve got to go.
2) The moment the ship is secured to the bollards I stand up and stride down the wharf toward the gangway they have just lowered.
I’m still unsure about what to do, but my legs are carrying me on, as if they possessed a will of their own. With my mind’s eye I see Martha’s warm smile, and her long hazelnut hair framing her lovely face. I gasp at the image, and my legs slow down a bit but don’t quite stop.
As it can be easily noticed it’s pretty difficult to say which of the two versions has a faster pace.
To start with, the average number of words per sentence by itself is a poor way to determine the pace of a piece.
Even if in (1) we have 82 words in 15 sentences for an average of 5.4 words per sentence, whereas in (2) we have 81 words in just 4 sentences for an average of 20.2 words per sentences.
That’s so because what you write matters a lot more that how you write it–of course, provided your command of language is at least adequate.
In fact, if you write short sentences, but they are about nothing you’re going to bore your readers no matter what.
Conversely if you sentences are longer and a bit more convoluted but center on juicy themes and revelations, your readers will be more willing to read on even if your style isn’t exactly flawless.
This is not to say that scientific research in literature is useless. But to make it clear that it can go only so far. And that if you read some of these research papers you’d better keep in mind that a single feature is rarely if ever the reason a piece works–or doesn’t.
In fact, in literature like pretty much everything else in life, when you’re learning something new you have to constantly shift your perspective between the proverbial trees and the forest. To make sure the feature you’re trying to master grows organically according to your natural style and inclinations.
For example, in the two passages above, what about the average length of the words used? About the connotations of such words? What about the grammatical constructions? The setting? These are all trees making up the forest.
This is also why even though in most instances a page of inanities is boring, if you have a bomb that is about to go off, and you as a reader know about it, and the main character is idling about, you’re bound to read that page of boring stuff with a mindset completely different than the one you would use if there hadn’t any bomb.
In the latter case you would gladly kick the writer in the ass. Instead in the former you would gladly kick the character.
So, never read only one paper on linguistics, never trust only one how-to book. And when in doubt go with your gut feelings. Because even if you may end up making a mistake, you would also learn from it. Beside there’s nothing that sucks more than making a mistake on someone else’s behalf.
As a result next time you write something make sure you pepper your pages with metaphoric bombs. Create a sense of urgency, or of impending discovery. Instill prurient curiosity if you must, or elicit interesting. You get the idea.
Because if you have an engrossing story to tell you are lucky. But you also have the responsibility to write it as well as you can and make the ride for your readers as enjoyable as possible.