Friday, June 24, 2016

Adjusting to the Changes to Our Language

The term “Modern English” can be a misnomer. English used by great writers such as Herman Melville and James Joyce is almost a completely different language from the one writers use today. While much of that has to do with vocabulary that isn’t used anymore, a good bit of it has to do with style—how writers say what they want to communicate.

Back then, life was more formal and so was the language everyone used. Wealthy educated people followed the British model while the common laborer used a lot of slang. Over the years, English has changed a lot. In fact, our language changes about every five years. New words come into common use as archaic ones get phased out. Another change, at times subtle, is punctuation. Semicolons are on their way out while dashes appear more frequently. And change remains continuous in English as the language adapts to the changing needs of those who use it.

As always, change is most easily seen in vocabulary. In its very early history, the Christianization of Britain brought such Latin words as angel, candle, priest, and school into English. From the Danish invasions came such basic words as they, their, them, skull, skin, anger, husband, knife, law, root, and ill. Following the Norman Conquest, people added many French words, such as dance, tax, mayor, justice, faith, battle, paper, poet, surgeon, gentle, flower, sun, to name just a few.

In the 17th century, Latin words poured into English as students studied more of it. Words such as industry, educate, insane, exist, illustrate, multiply, benefit, paragraph, and delicate, all came from Latin.

As English explorers like John Cabot and James Cook reached out to other parts of the world, they brought their language with them. It continued its habit of borrowing, drawing on Arabic for alcohol and assassin, Hebrew for cherub and kosher, East Indian for jungle and yoga, Japanese for tycoon, Spanish for adobe and canyon, and many other languages. The borrowing process continues today.

In the past 100 years, two things have greatly affected the development of the English language. The first was the rapid development of mass education and the resulting rise in literacy. The second is the advancement of science and technology. The more people able to read English in print, the greater their input. 

Today, through the explosion of electronic media, an even greater number of people have access to the printed word.  This is already causing our language to develop differently from one in which writers target only a special literary minority and in which people speak face-to-face.

The technological revolution of the late 20th and early 21st centuries has given English a burgeoning vocabulary of technical terms that have become a part of the common language almost overnight.

Changes in grammar since the 16th century, though minor compared with the earlier loss of inflections and the accompanying fixing of word order (see last week’s blog), have continued in today’s English. Reliance upon word order and function words has become even greater.

Questions in the form of Consents she? and negations in the form of I say not or I run not have disappeared, and have been replaced by the verb do, as in Does she consent?, I do not say, I do not run. And even these have become shortened by the use of contractions—a form forbidden by most English teachers—to I don’t say or I don’t run.

The use of the verb to be has become more common, as in He was shopping or We are studying, shortened further to We’re studying. Other changes include an increase in the number of verbs combined with adverbs or with prepositions, as in He looked up the word or She looked over her new garden. Similarly, writers now use nouns as modifiers of other nouns, as in college student, car radio, gas station, space flight.

English will continue to evolve and writers must stay abreast of the changes. While many are subtle, it doesn’t take much for writing to appear stale and antiquated in today’s high-tech world.

Monday, June 20, 2016

What Do You Know About Our Language?

As an American writer, you write in English. You’ve spoken and written in this language all your life. You take it for granted. But what do you really know about the English language?

Ask anyone who speaks English as a second language, and they’ll tell you how hard it is to learn. While Russian seems like a difficult language, it pales when compared with English. The reason our language is so complicated is that it’s actually derived from most of the European languages. You probably recognize certain French, Spanish, Italian and even Portuguese words. And you certainly know many German words, but did you know English also includes words from the Slavic languages, including Russian, the Scandinavian languages, especially Danish, and also Celtic.

English is directly descended from the language of the Germanic tribes—the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes—who invaded the British Isles in the 5th and 6th centuries, driving out or absorbing the Celtic inhabitants after the Romans withdrew. We can date the three periods of our language—Old English, used until about 1100 A.D., Middle English, used from about 1100 to 1500 A.D., and Modern English—to this Anglo-Saxon invasion.

Old English consisted mainly of Anglo-Saxon words with a few Old Norse words thrown in. These came from the Vikings who invaded the British Isles in the 8th through the 10th centuries. This early form of English used inflectional endings similar to those used in modern German and a much freer word order than exists in Modern English. Thus, Old English depended upon changes in the forms, particularly the endings, of words to show their relationship to one another. Personal pronouns---I, me, my, mine and so on—are among the few types of inflection remaining in English today.

Middle English was a transitional form of our language influenced by the Norman Conquest in 1066. The Normans also were Vikings who settled in northern France and who had gradually exchanged their native Old Norse language for Old French, which contained Latin, Scandinavian, and French words to England. For nearly 400 years French was the major language of the ruling class while Old English became the language of commoners.

As the Normans became culturally and politically separated from Europe, their association with the English-speaking common people gradually led to the resurrection of English as the spoken language of all classes. For example, beef (boeuf), mutton, and venison—words of French origin—describe meat cooked and served at the table while cattle, sheep, and deer—words of Anglo-Saxon origin—describe meat on the hoof in the field.

Word order became the principal means of conveying meaningful relationships among words in a sentence in Middle English. At the same time, the number and importance of  articles, prepositions, and conjunctions grew. During the Middle English period, the dialect spoken in London emerged as the basis for standard English. Also, most of the major writers of the late Middle Ages used it. And at the time, there wasn’t a single literary language. Goeffrey Chaucer, an English writer of the period, wrote his Canterbury Tales in the dialect of London of Middle English.

The shift from Middle English to Modern English occurred during a series of pronunciation changes known as the Great Vowel Shift. As a result of these changes which took place between 1350 and 1550, English began to sound more as it does today.                        

The invention of the printing press had a positive effect on the development of English. Printing, and the subsequent increase in people who could read and write, tended to slow change and foster greater stability and standardization in both the spoken and written language. The downside was that word spelling became more confusing because of the Great Vowel Shift.  Sir Thomas Mallory wrote Morte d’Arthur, his famous tale of King Arthur, during the early years of Modern English.

Modern English adapts to the changing needs of writers who use it. And while most of the changes occur in vocabulary, modern usage has changed forms and uses of punctuation, and even sentence structure.

Next Week: I’ll be looking at some of the ways English has changed since the 19th century.

Monday, June 13, 2016


What makes a character compelling to a reader? Is it one who’s physical description grabs the reader. Or is it one whose personality the reader identifies with? While it could be either or both of those, what makes a character compelling is his or her ability to surprise the reader while remaining internally consistent. Every character, whether in fiction or nonfiction needs to posses some or all of these crucial things—ambition, a desire, a driving need, a secret, a contradiction, and a vulnerability.

Ambition drives many people to do some very good and some very bad things. While not everyone is ambitious, those that are tend to be aggressive and pursue life to the fullest, sometimes no matter what.

A Desire
Just as ambition can affect how a person lives their daily life, so a desire can possess someone to the point of altering reality. Sexual desire can drive a character to make rash decisions and can even lead to harming another person. Jealousy is another trait that can adversely affect the way a character perceives reality. Desire intrinsically creates conflict.

A Driving Need
While possessing a driving need may lead to good actions, it can also lead to bad ones, as in revenge. The need for revenge can drive a person over the edge and force him or her to do unspeakable things.

The more a character wants and the stronger the want, the more compelling the  drama. This is because desire intrinsically creates conflict. This is a perfect example of the misconception that simply by giving the character a deep-seated need or want, you can automatically create conflict.

A Secret
A secret is an inclination or trait, such as a disposition to dishonesty, violence, sexual excess, or the abuse of alcohol or drugs, or an incident from the past that, if revealed, would change forever the character’s standing in his or her world, among co-workers, neighbors, friends, family, and lovers. Secrets inform us of what our characters have to lose, and why.

Of all these character traits, you most likely have a true insight into what it’s like to keep a secret and how it can affect your behavior—specifically, how they make us afraid.

A Contradiction
We all know people who are both shy and rude or funny and cruel. This complexity, which often appears during times of stress or conflict, is what can make a character  unpredictable, resulting in the kind of surprising behavior that will keep readers  wondering what’s going to happen next.

Your readers’ minds focus on irregularities—things that don’t make sense or that don’t quite fit. This helps your characters to analyze their environment for threats.  Contradictions reveal to readers what they can’t predict or a surprise.

A Vulnerability
Nothing draws us into a character more than his or her vulnerability. When people appear wounded or in need of help, people are instantly drawn to them. At the same time, they may also be repelled or frightened. Either way, injury to another person instantly triggers a strong response in readers.

Obviously, vulnerability may be the result of the character’s secret: He or she has a fear of being found out. Or it may come from the intensity of a need. For your character, the ambition and focus of a strong desire can imply some form of inner strength, while at the same time rendering the character vulnerable to being deprived of what he or she  wants most

Remember, your characters are human beings to whom your story happens. Unfortunately for many writers, a story begins with an idea. Fleshing out the characters to live in that story comes later.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Bringing Real Characters to Life

You’d think that if you’re writing about real people in a nonfiction piece that it would be easier than making up characters in a fictional short story or novel. Actually, quite the opposite is true. While you have facts about the person to deal with, there are limitations.

Many of the same techniques for writing characters in fiction apply to nonfiction.  Through detail, through gesture, through talk, through close understanding of someone’s life before and after the scope of your story, you make your people vivid in your reader’s mind.

Characters are primary in creative nonfiction, an all-encompassing term covering the personal essays and literary journalism. The chief difference between creative nonfiction and regular nonfiction is that the writer composes the former in scenes with characters just like in fiction. But characters in nonfiction present special problems. While fiction writers base their characters on real people, nonfiction writers usually tell their readers about their characters. The trick is to use the fictional technique of showing, not telling.

When writing nonfiction, much of the work of characterization is done for you. You base your characters on facts, characterization is complete, the family history is in place, the physical description is a given. But that doesn’t make anything easier. The job is merely different. Doing justice to a real person can be difficult because you may have pre-existing biases to that person or their ideas.

Nonfiction readers get to know characters through their actions. But from who’s point of view? It’s all in the moment, all told from a particular point of view. We see the scene—a dark, stormy night off the coast of North Carolina—in the book Shipwrecks and Lost Treasures: Outer Banks, by Bob Brooke. The reader is in the wheelhouse with the captain, Commander George Ryan, and the officer on duty, Lieutenant W.S. French, at 1:00 A.M. as they try to steer the Huron, a converted gunship, through the swirling waters.

        “Hard over,” French shouted to the helmsman. “Leadsman take soundings.” But his orders came too late. The ship swung around toward the beach, heeling over on her port side.
        “What’s out location?, Mr. French?” asked Ryan.
        “I don’t know sir,” French replied.
        “Give the orders for all hands on deck.”
        “Aye, sir.”
        As the mist parted, Commander Ryan finally saw the coastline. “My, God, How did we get here?” he cried.

With just a few words of dialog and some short description, the writer was able to not only establish a time and place, but the military order covering the panic in the voices of the crewmen. From here, the point of view changes as the scene changes to a father and daughter on the shore, desperately trying to find a way to save the sailors.

Once you establish the scene, readers are in a particular time and don’t leave it. What changes is the point of view. Action keeps the scene moving forward.

Often nonfiction writers relate their characters personality characteristics through an as-told-to narrative. This often happens in memoirs where writers use family stories to make their characters come to life. In these, the writer stands back and lets readers draw their own conclusions and make their own judgements.

A character rarely appears fully formed. Readers get to know him or her in bits and pieces scene by scene. You’ll need to will your characters to life by drawing on your unconscious, memory, and imagination until your characters assume a clear form and, with hope, begin to act of their own accord.

This process is inherent to the success of any novel, but it’s also important in nonfiction writing. The key is first to understand what your characters require from you in order to come to life, and then to determine how you can draw on your best available resources to give them what they need.

But what happens if you don’t have all the information you need to flesh out a character in nonfiction? Unlike in fiction, you can’t just make things up. However, you can use your imagination in finding information from other sources.

For instance, let’s say you want your characters to speak but you don’t have access to the exact words of what they said. You can research the same sort of character in similar situations who most likely said something similar. This is exactly what happened in the above example. From captains’ logs of similar shipwreck scenarios, it was possible for the writer to create an exciting, nail-biting scene. He had to do this because Commander Ryan died when his lifeboat overturned and the all was lost, including his log, when the ship sank.

The same goes for how a character dresses. You may find what you need in old photographs from which you describe the type of clothes your characters wore. Similar information may appear in old letters written by a friend or relative of the character about him or her. Remember, you need to find facts about the person to fill out the characterization. Begin with what you know about the person and then do specialized research to fill in any voids in your characterization. You may not need much, just the essence.

Next Week: Characteristics of Compelling Nonfiction Characters