Uncategorized | August 05, 2011

I’ve been editing my novel this summer. Recently I ran across a phrase that I knew I’d heard before: “the narrow throat of the corridor.” Too purple, perhaps, and worse, when I searched the file, I found I’d already used this exact description some 200 pages earlier. Thanks to a couple of years spent proof-reading environmental reports, I have a pretty good eye for things like this—give me a document and I’ll spot unintentional repetitions, small discrepancies, extra spaces between words. But how to know whether other writers have described corridors in similar terms? In last week’s New York Times Sunday Book Review, Ben Zimmer wrote about a database that lets me search other people’s books, too—something even cooler than Google Books. The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) is a research tool created by linguistics professor at Brigham Young University to analyze contemporary language usage. According to Zimmer, the corpus includes works from the last 20 years and compiles “425 million words of text…with equally large samples drawn from fiction, popular magazines, newspapers, academic texts and transcripts of spoken English.”

Zimmer’s article describes a number of interesting projects that make use of COCA—researchers looking for patterns in word use and, in some cases, finding phrases or constructions (“collocations”) that are more prevalent in fiction than in spoken English. I was struck by a remark from lexicographer Orin Hargraves, whose study of “hair-related collocations” in fiction reveals that “’fictional characters cannot stop playing with their hair.’” That finding isn’t surprising: playing with the hair is the fictional equivalent of an actor smoking, a familiar means of conveying unease or flirtatiousness. As Zimmer puts it, “The conventions of modern storytelling dictate that fictional characters react to their worlds in certain stock ways and that the storytellers use stock expressions to describe those reactions.” This is something most of us know about our art—but COCA can help us to actually see it. Indexing journals like Callaloo, TriQuarterly, and The Southern Review, and books by writers like Clavell, Cynthia Ozick and Elizabeth Strout, COCA lets us easily examine our tropes. Here we can see both the number of times somebody “plays” with “hair” and read the passages in which these two words occur. Here is quantitative and qualitative evidence that literary fiction is a genre with well-established conventions.

The last time I was in the TMR office, the poetry readers had filled a white board with words they felt had been over- (and unwisely) used in poems. I sympathized deeply. At the head of my own forbidden list is a verb that crops up often in contemporary fiction: to finger. When characters don’t convey unease by playing with their hair, they may well resort to “nervously” or “anxiously” “fingering” nearby objects. A search for “fingered” in COCA’s fiction database returns characters who finger cassette tapes, flashlights, photographs, books, beards, articles of clothing, trophies, scars, jewelry, a scientific journal–and on and on, from Highlights for Children to The New England Review, from Good Housekeeping to The New Yorker: 559 hits found in magazines and books. Surely you’ve seen “fingered” in writing, too, sexualizing even the most innocent sentence. Characters don’t use the word in conversation; writers use it in their narration. According to the OED, this has been going on for many hundreds of years, since women were wont, in Spenser’s Faerie Queen, “to finger the fine needle and nyce thread” or since Philammon, in Charles Kingsley’s Hypatia, spoke while “fingering curiously the first coins he had ever handled in his life”. A more tactile word than “touched”? More suggestive than “rubbed”? Perhaps I am a poor reader for not allowing fingered its multiple meanings—the OED gives eight. But consider the times, if any, that you’ve used or heard the word in conversation: when did it describe anything but a sex act? How can fiction writers be unaware of connotation, when their characters begin fingering a desktop, a business card, or, my favorite because surely self-aware, “a ball and stick molecular model that had been serving as a paperweight” (from Thomas Dulski’s “Guaranteed Not to Turn Pink in the Can”)? Yet according to COCA’s demure database, the only use we make of this verb in spoken English is when describing the actions of a narc, a snitch, a dirty squealing rat. The database’s collection of spoken texts appears to compile transcribed television and radio news programs; it returns 56 instances of reporters using “fingered” to affect a hard-boiled tone. One 2010 episode of Dateline uses the word three times in voiceovers: “They said they lied when they fingered Ryan as the killer.” To point the finger at, to implicate: the fiction writer was fingered as a persnickety reader.

No matter that my initial experiments with COCA were made in pursuit of a pet peeve, I find it interesting that the results yielded such distinct patterns of usage in fiction and what COCA calls speech. I hope you’ll find something equally revealing–a little light research to get you in the back-to-school mood.