I saw this thing on the BBC website and loved it enough to want to tell you about it. As a writer, I love words and what they can do. I also recognise that years of practice have instilled in me some basic rules that serve me well. A writer’s job is to tell a story and not to advertise the way in which the story’s being told.
If I write a clumsy sentence, or even a single inappropriate word, the reader is immediately pulled out of the situation my protagonist is faced with and back to reality. Do that often and any reader will put down my book in disgust and give up. Having a compelling plot and interesting characters isn’t enough. The story needs to flow in a way that a reader will find comfortable and satisfying.
There are many craft books out there that help a writer to understand what works and what doesn’t. However, there are some extremely powerful rules that are instinctive and rarely expressed.
Take this, for instance:
Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out.
The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth
Break this rule and, as the man says, you’ll sound like a maniac. Which will be off-putting to your English wonderful readership. ARRGH! See what he means?
Of course there’s more too it, there always is. I can almost hear the cries of Big Bad Wolf. What about that then? Shouldn’t it be Bad Big Wolf according to the rule, even though that would sound pretty awful?
The brilliant Mr Forsyth explains:
Reduplication in linguistics is when you repeat a word, sometimes with an altered consonant (lovey-dovey, fuddy-duddy, nitty-gritty), and sometimes with an altered vowel: bish-bash-bosh, ding-dang-dong. If there are three words then the order has to go I, A, O. If there are two words then the first is I and the second is either A or O. Mish-mash, chit-chat, dilly-dally, shilly-shally, tip top, hip-hop, flip-flop, tic tac, sing song, ding dong, King Kong, ping pong.
So linguistic reduplication is so important that it outranks the adjective sequence.
We don’t have to learn any of this, it’s all natural. Which makes it so powerful because my readers don’t spot that I’m breaking any rules, they only know that it sounds wrong and they don’t like it. So they stop reading. And I don’t want that.
No more washy-wishy prose for me, I’m getting Mr Forsyth’s book.