The Jargon of the Novel, Computed

Graphic by Joon Mo Kang; source: Corpus of Contemporary American English, 425 million words, 1990-2011; data set measures all forms of the word “bolt.”

By BEN ZIMMER

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?

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