The vernacular of fiction – and we thought we were being creative!

How often, we caution our clients to avoid obvious cliché and find new ways of saying things. Now, it turns out that the “new” ways writers find to say things may just be accepted novel-speak, what word expert Ben Zimmer calls the “jargon of the novel’ in this week’s New York Times Book Review.

Zimmer, who is executive producer of and, cites the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) which has gathered some 425 million words of text in equal measure from fiction, popular magazines, newspapers, academic texts and transcripts of spoken English, all written since 1990. (A corpus is a collection of written texts.)

When Zimmer asked COCA (anyone can search the database on-line) what past tense verbs show up more frequently in fiction than in academic texts the top five were “grimaced”, “scowled”, “grunted”, “wiggled” and “gritted.” Zimmer says “sour facial expressions, gruff noises and emphatic bodily movements (wriggling fingers and gritting teeth)” rule in the world of fiction. Who knew?

COCA is also searchable for collections of words such as “bolt upright” and “draw a breath,” two that seem to be peculiar to fiction.

We searched the database for a word that is something of a crusade with us. We are constantly telling clients not to use the word “suddenly”  or only very sparingly. If something happening in a novel is truly sudden, there are other ways to express it and most of the time the event itself denotes its own suddenness so “suddenly” is redundant and overly dramatic. COCA reported that “suddenly” popped up 26,159 times, in fiction. By comparison, magazines (the next highest usage) employed "suddenly" 7,705 times.

But there is hope: “suddenly” was used  in fiction 7,189 times between 1990 and 1994. Between 2005 and 2009, it appeared only 5,313 times. The trend is moving in the right direction and we hope we have something to do with it.