“So there you are!” Fred exclaims as the Author boots the computer and accesses his program and a new disk. “What took you so long? Where’ve you been?”
The Author blinks vacantly at the screen and yawns. “I took the Memorial Day weekend off. The weather was just beautiful and I didn’t feel like being stuck in this garret while everyone else was at the beach.”
“Everybody but me,” Fred says.
“That’s the way it goes. You can’t win ‘em all.”
“Got any more clichés to ply me with?” Fred asks through a curled lip. He brushes the hair out of his eyes. “What are we gonna talk about now?”
“A whole bunch of things, all of them related.”
“Syntax, diction, and style, for three, and then dialect and slang.”
“We’ve talked about some of those things before.”
“No,” the Author says, shaking his head. “We’ve mentioned them, but we’ve not discussed them, and they’re important. Not only are they related to and supportive of one another, they are also directly related to viewpoint, which we’ve just finished discussing. We need to begin by doing some defining,” the Author says.
“You never get tired of doing that, do you!” Fred sighs.
Syntax 1: subjective word order
“It’s how we know things, Fred. Naming something is a basic human step in the acquisition of knowledge.” It’s the Author’s turn to sigh. “Donald Davie in a 1958 book called Articulate Energy talked about the three traditional types of syntax or ‘word order’ in the sentence. He points out that, with regard to subjective syntax, word order follows the ‘form of a thought’ in the mind of the writer.”
“Do we have an example of subjective syntax?”
“If you were a real person we would have had an example at that spot where I left the room and you began to compose on the computer. We saw, however, that what you wrote was really from the dramatic viewpoint because I was putting words into your mouth, into the mouth of an invented persona. However, since I am a real person…”
“Don’t rub it in,” Fred says bitterly.
“… an example of subjective syntax would be, ‘I, the Author, am quite proud of my invented character Fred Foyle.’ “
“Aw, shucks,” Fred says, a blush staining his pale features.
“And that’s exactly what I have against Fred,” Nan Deditter says.
Both Fred and the Author jump.
“Oh, my soul!” Fred says, panting and holding a hand to his thin chest, as though to keep the heart from bursting through his shirt.
The Author composes himself. “What soul, Fred?” he asks. Then, “We didn’t hear you come in, Nan. Have a seat. What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about Fred Foyle and why I would have liked you to get rid of him.” Nan Deditter touches her hair and sits down on the Lazyboy. “Your strategy in this book is certainly unusual and imaginative, setting up the whole book as a dialogue between yourself as author and a fictional character, Fred Foyle. However, I don’t believe it has precisely the effect you intended. Despite his many charms as a character, and despite the originality of your concept, I don’t think Fred’s helping the book.”
The look on Fred’s face is heartrending, the Author thinks. To Nan he says, “What on earth are you talking about?”
“One problem with this strategy,” Nan replies, “is that you end up talking, in effect, to yourself: to your own personal straight man, your ventriloquist’s dummy whom you can make understand, applaud, be impressed, or be satisfied with explanations, whenever you find it convenient he should.”
“Let me get this straight, Nan,” the Author says, leaning forward. “In other words, you object that Fred is a ‘fictional character,’ yet what I am supposed to do in this book is teach novice writers how to manipulate their fictional characters, invent speeches for them, make characters do what the novice want them to do – in other words, you chastise me for doing what you want me to teach my students to do! Is that right?”
“Fred does nothing to curb an inclination to ‘point and move’ style: as soon as he says everything’s clear, you move on… and he says it’s clear whenever you want him to.”
“So what? If Fred weren’t in the book, I’d still move on when I figure I’ve made something clear.”
“As long as you’re talking to Fred, a character who simply wants to understand, you’re not talking to the reader, who needs not only to understand, but to do. The reader needs, not only to intellectually learn the principles discussed by you and embodied in the examples, but also needs to be able to apply those principles independently in his or her own fiction. Fred Foyle has no such needs.”
“I object!” Fred cries, jumping to his feet. “I’m as ambitious as anybody. I wouldn’t be asking these questions if I didn’t want to be a writer myself. I say so right from the beginning, I’d like to be the Author – in fact, I am the Author, as you yourself point out!”
Nan ignores him, but she continues to talk about Fred as though he were a real third person, distinct from the Author. “His strongest interest is apparently purposeless curiosity,” she continues, “as contrasted with a reader’s urgent need for guidance in something he’s already engaged in doing: that is, writing fiction. So Fred is meaningfully unlike the reader to whom the book is addressed and therefore does not serve well as a surrogate for him. I’m afraid, at some points, the happy cross-chat with Fred will leave the reader unsatisfied, feeling he’s merely overhearing talk that’s not really directed to him or his concerns, lacking the guidance for which he bought the books in the first place.”
“Hold it right there, Nan!” the Author cries, pawing through his correspondence. “Here it is!” he cries triumphantly. “Let me read you something you wrote to me. One of the subjects you want me to cover is, and I quote, ‘Using dialogue (as opposed to summary narration) to increase immediacy and the reader’s feeling that events are moving quickly right before their eyes. The increased reader involvement of “eavesdropping” on dialogue rather than passively having the author tell you, the reader, about something, all tidy and pre-digested. Keeping an effective balance between dialogue and other storytelling elements.’ You can’t have it both ways,” the Author points out. “If my talking with Fred doesn’t give the reader a sense that he or she is eavesdropping on a conversation rather than reading a schoolbook, then what does it do?” He pauses. Nan says nothing.
“I’ll tell you what, Nan,” the Author continues, “I’ll write an Introduction in which I’ll answer some of these questions. Will that help?
Nan pays no attention. She is either so absorbed in what she is saying that she doesn’t hear the Author, or she is not physically present in the room to hear him. “It’s really crucial that this book be solid, reader-friendly, reader-conscious how to, not academic overview, as it sometimes now seems. Assuming that’s not the impression you wanted to make, can I persuade you to reconsider using Fred and talk to the reader instead?”
The Author thinks for a moment. Fred is beyond thinking. He simply sits at the Author’s trestle desk with his mouth hanging open and his eyes faintly crossed, glazed over. At last the Author leans forward to reply.
“Nan, I am the son of a Baptist minister. I had to go to church every Sunday and be preached at. I didn’t like it. As a teacher, I don’t like books that preach at me, telling me how I’m supposed to do things. I am committed, however, to teaching my students how they can approach writing, and I give them all a range of techniques that are to be found in most fiction, though not every piece of fiction (or poetry or drama) will use all those techniques. I try to invent strategies that will engross my students.” He pauses to shake his head in a rueful manner. “Forgive me if I’m obtuse,” the Author resumes, “but I can imagine no strategy more likely to succeed in teaching dialogue writing than writing a whole book in dialogue form. I’m sorry, I realize your argument is sincere, but I don’t believe you’re correct. I’m going to keep Fred.”
Fred turns but, quick (and grateful) as he is, he is not fast enough to catch Nan Deditter’s departure. “My God!” he says, “that was awful! What was it all about?” He is even paler than usual.
“It was all about subjective syntax, personal opinion.”
“Was she really here?”
“In the flesh, no; in her words, yes. That’s just how she feels about you, Fred. I invented nothing. Those were all quotes. Did you notice how the word order of each of her written sentences expressed as exactly as possible the train of thought going through her mind? That is subjective syntax.”
Syntax 2: objective word order
Having recovered to a degree, Fred asks, “How about the second kind?”
“With regard to objective syntax, word order follows a ‘form of action’ in the world at large. We must have some examples of that kind of syntax somewhere. Let’s see –“ the Author riffles through the completed portion of the manuscript. “You know,” he says, “there really isn’t much here. Almost everything so far is dialogue. Oh…” he says, “I think I’ve got one. Yes, it’s from the opening of the Horace story: ‘Horace lay in his bed and listened to the attendant shambling up the hall with the lunch cart.’ “
“So objective word order in effect just lays out an action on the page?”
“Exactly. Here’s another example, from the first paragraph of ‘Hardware,’ a short story by Lester Goldberg, told from the character-oriented, first-person, objective, single-angle viewpoint”:
The football spiralled into the sky. I cut right, leaped and grabbed it, tucked it in, ran a few steps, then turned toward my father and lobbed the ball back. Cut right, cut left: he threw pass after pass. As the sun dropped behind the factory roof and the Pyrene Fire Extinguisher sign glowed red, we knew my mother could see it from our apartment and it was time to head for home. On the way, walking a few feet apart, I still had to be alert – my father might pop the football at me underhanded.
“Question,” Fred says. “Do you remember that passage youquoted from Christopher Isherwood’s novel The Memorial?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Well, there was a section that read like this: ‘And then she’d ask him about the office and whether the work was very hard and how he liked it. And he began to tell her, carefully and seriously, suddenly breaking off…’ “
“What about ?” the Author asks.
“Those sentences are describing dialogue. Is that objective syntax?”
“Absolutely. In fact, if I had kept going with the paragraph from Lester Goldberg’s story, we’d have seen some of it:
He told me about his dream backfield: Marshall Goldberg, Pittsburgh Panthers, halfback; Sid Luckman, Chicago Bears, quarterback; Paul Robeson, Rutgers, fullback. Two Jews and a Negro.
“A person speaking is performing an action, and the description of a speech is bound to be written in objective word order.”
“Then what syntax is used in speech itself?” Fred asks.
Syntax 3: dramatic word order
“The third type of syntax discussed by Davie is dramatic syntax: word order follows the ‘form of thought’ in the mind of a persona invented by the writer.”
“I don’t suppose we need to provide too many examples of that sort of syntax,” Fred notes. “We have tons of that – almost everything in this book, I suppose.”
Diction 3: levels of diction
“Right. Now, Fred, I suppose you’ve noticed that these kinds of syntax have parallels with the ‘voices’ we discussed much earlier – subjective, objective, and dramatic voices. There are other parallels as well – with diction.
“In contemporary speech, this sentence would be an example of normal word order: ‘A thought of grief came to me alone.’ The subject comes first, then the predicate: ‘A thought… came… to me…” In line four of stanza three from Wordsworth’s ‘Ode: Intimations of Immorality…,’ this normal syntax is changed: ‘To me alone there came a thought of grief.’ The two sentences say exactly the same thing, but they sound different because of the syntax, which has transformed the level of diction in the line. The tone of the second version has been ‘elevated.’ “
“Is there a one-to-one relationship between syntax and diction?” Fred asks.
“No,” the Author replies, shaking his head, “but they are related. They depend on one another, but they are not the same thing. Syntax is concerned with the form of the sentence; diction has to do with its tone and style. The level of diction of a truck driver is usually difficult from that of an archbishop.” The Author pauses a moment and looks down at the pile of books scattered on the attic floor behind him. He returns his gaze to the monitor and commences typing again.
Tone and style 1: high, mean, low
“An archbishop speaks in an elevated ‘style,’ a truck driver, perhaps, in an idiomatic or slangy style. These styles are dependent on the levels of diction in which the individuals choose to speak.
“For instance, a truck driver in a play or story could not say, ‘To me alone there came a thought of grief’ because the sentence wouldn’t be in character; the level of diction is lofty, not vernacular. To be believable as a character, the truck driver would have to say something like, ‘A sad thought came to me by my lonesome.’ The level of diction would then be in keeping with the character, and the sentence would be an example of base style rather than mean or high style.”
“Give me another example of base style,” Fred says.
“Okay, take this sentence from one of my pieces titled, ‘The Bo’sun’s Story’: ‘I’d went upstairs early that night when my pa come home drunk,’ That’s base style and a low level of diction. A more ordinary level would have been, ‘I’d gone upstairs early that night when my father came home drunk.’ But the bo’sun can’t say that, because it would have been out of character. He’s a career sailor aboard a Navy ship. He’s had little education, could have said it the second way.”
“I see,” Fred says. “So if an older, well-educated woman character were written into the script of our hypothetical play, she might have said, ‘A thought of grief came to me alone,’ right?”
“Exactly. That would be mean style. The archbishop might say, ‘To me alone there came a thought of grief’ – high style and elevated diction. Only in this last version, however, is the word order, the syntax, out of normal order. It is ‘artificial’ syntax and it does not seem ‘natural,’ but it is perfectly good English.
“Let me recapitulate. There are three voices: subjective, objective, and dramatic; there are three persons and two numbers of voice: first-, second-, and third-person speakers, and singular and plural numbers. This table will help us see who is speaking and what they are speaking about:
Voice: Subjective Narrative Dramatic
First I I, we I
Second you, you (pl.)
Third he, she, it, they
“So all these things depend on each other when you’re writing dialogue.”
“Yes. Take for instance these sentences in a short play I wrote titled ‘Barrow Yard,’ which I later turned into a short story titled ‘The Yeoman’s Story’ – they’re spoken by a tramp: ‘… and yet you know damn well there ain’t a friggin’ thing we could’ve done. He saw our fire, and bing! There he was, standing in the firelight.’ In ‘The Yeoman’s Story’ the tramp becomes Duke, who is a better-educated person with a middle-class background. The equivalent sentences read, ‘ “You know damn well there’s not a thing we could’ve done about it,” Duke said. “He saw our fire, and then there he was, standing in the light.” ‘ “
“Aren’t we talking about characterization again? How dialogue characterizes the person speaking?”
“That’s very largely what diction is about – identifying the persona and his or her traits, including the main personality trait on which much of the story will depend for its plot and the motivations of its characters.”
Fred Foyle stands beside the Author with his head turned slightly. He is looking down at a pile of books on the floor. “What are all these for?” he asks. “I saw you bring them in yesterday.”
“They’re full of examples,” the Author replies, his fingers nimble upon the keyboard. “Take this one, for example,” He stops typing to reach down and pick up one of the volumes. “It’s a short novel, Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck. It’s about two men, Lennie and George. Lennie is a big man who is retarded. George is his friend, his keeper in effect, whose purpose in this relationship is to keep Lennie out of trouble. This is some dialogue from early in the story”:
Lennie looked timidly over to him. “George?”
“Yeah, what you want?”
“Where we goin’, George?”
The little man jerked down the brim of his hat and scowled over at Lennie. “So you forgot that awready, did you? I gotta tell you again, do I? Jesus Christ, you’re a crazy bastard!”
“I forgot,” Lennie said softly. “I tried not to forget. Honest to God I did, George.”
“O.K. – O.K. I’ll tell ya again. I ain’t got nothing to do. Might jus’ as well spen’ all my time tellin’ you things and then you forget ‘em, and I tell you again.”
“Tried and tried,” said Lennie, “but it didn’t do no good. I remember about the rabbits, George.
“There’s more than just characterization there,” Fred says.
“Okay, then. Analyze the passage for me. What’s in it?”
“Well, first,” Fred points out, “the relationship between the men is established.”
“Which one is dominant?”
“The little man, George. He’s in charge.”
“What’s their station in life?”
“That’s easy,” Fred says. “Both men are without an education. Youkan tell that by the base level diction both use. But you get the impression that George is a good deal smarter than Lennie.”
“Lennie can’t concentrate. Not only does he say he forgets, but his mind wanders even as the two men are talking. Lennie gets hung up on remembering some incident in the past involving rabbits while George is telling him – again – where they’re supposed to be going.”
“Is Lennie crazy, as George states?”
“No, you get the impression that’s the wrong word, that George doesn’t know the right word – ‘retarded’ – so he uses the approximate synonym, ‘crazy.’ “
“Where are they?”
“On the road. They’re wanderers, bums probably.”
“And what,” the Author asks, “do you think of the form of the dialogue?”
“You mean the way Steinbeck imitates the diction and syntax the two men use by phonetically spelling their pronunciations of words?”
“That, and the syntax of their sentences.”
“I think it takes some getting used to.”
“Is it justified?” the Author asks.
Fred Foyle sits on the edge of the Lazyboy and puts his chin into his left hand, resting the elbow on his knee. “That’s hard to say,” he says, finally, looking up.
“Tell you what.” The Author turns back to his keyboard and monitor. “Let’s take that whole passage and change its level of diction and the syntax of its sentences and see if it makes any difference”:
Lennie looked timidly over to him. “George?”
“Yes, what do you want?”
“Where are we going, George?”
The little man jerked down the brim of his hat and scowled over at Lennie. “So you’ve forgotten that already, have you? I have to tell you again, do I? Good grief, you’re a madman!”
“I’ve forgotten,” Lennie said softly. “I tried not to forget. Truly I did, George.”
“All right – all right. I’ll remind you. I’ve nothing better to do. I might as well spend all my time explaining things to you so that you can forget them and I can tell you again.”
“I’ve tried and tried,” said Lennie, “but it’s done little good. I remember what happened to the rabbits, George.”
“What a difference!” Fred says. “The whole passage is transformed. They’re two other people.”
“So Steinbeck was justified in doing what he did with syntax and level of diction?”
“Would you try it yourself in a story you wrote?”
Fred looks dubious. “I’m not sure I could pull it off,” he says. “While the diction of both Lennie and George is on the same level, for instance, the characters are totally different. I’m not sure I could pull that off,” he says again.
The Author nods. “It’s hard. You have to be so confident of your characters and of your level of diction – even of the dialect you’re using – that it’s easy to let your personas slip out of character.”
“What do you recommend, then?”
“Hold on, Fred,” the Author says, a fleeting look of annoyance passing over his features. “Let’s do this by example. Do you remember that passage we used earlier on from John O’Hara’s short novel Appointment in Samara?”
Fred thumbs back through the manuscript pages lying in their folder on the open top drawer of the two-drawer wooden file. “Sure. Here it is right here – “
“All I want is one section of it: ‘What’s the mattah, honey sugah lamb pie, what’s the mattah you all?’ What’s that supposed to be?”
“Southern dialect,” Fred says without hesitation.
Fred peers more closely at the monitor. “Oh, I see what you mean. It’s mock-Southern dialect.”
“Do you suppose O’Hara was a Southerner?”
“I doubt it.”
“Why would a Southerner make fun of his own dialect?”
“Indeed, why would he?” the Author asks archly. “O’Hara was a Pennsylvanian. But there’s another reason a Southerner wouldn’t normally use ‘Southern dialect.’ “
“What’s that?” Fred asks.
“Because a Southerner doesn’t hear his own dialect. Only someone from another area of the country actually hears it. If you’re from Maine, you speak like a Mainer; if you’re from Brooklyn, you speak like a Brooklynite. The only way you’re going to be conscious of your dialect is if you can somehow get outside your dialect and hear it as an observer would hear it. Here’s an example,” the Author says, picking up another book, “from Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe, a Southerner writer”:
“You little freak – wandering around with your queer dopey face. You’re a regular little Pentland – you funny little freak, you. Everybody’s laughing at you. Don’t you know that? Don’t you? We’re going to dress you up as a girl, and let you go around like that. You haven’t got a drop of Gant blood in you – papa’s practically said as much – you’re Greeley all over again; you’re queer. Pentland queerness sticking out all over you.”
Fred Foyle looks startled. “Why, there’s nothing at all there to show that it’s spoken by a Southener!”
“Just so. The local PBS radio station here in town has a slogan: ‘The pictures are better in the theatre of the mind.’ That goes for speech, too: ‘the dialogue is better in the theatre of the mind.’ Everyone – Southerner, Northerner, Westerner, Cajun, Navaho – is going to read those words silently and hear them in his or her own version of ‘Southern dialect.’ “
“In other words,” Fred says, “you’re telling me that a writer ought to leave well enough alone.” He pauses to mull that thought over. “In that case, why did Steinbeck give a sort of ‘slang’ dialect (if I can put it that way) to Lennie and George?”
“Because,” the Author says patiently, “bums probably aren’t going to be reading his book. People who are literate are going to read it, so both Steinbeck and his readers are looking at the world of the characters in Of Mice and Men from the outside, not theinside. They are observers. They are reading a book that is not a product of their own class, or their own region, or their own dialect.”
“But what if somebody wants to write a whole story in a dialect. Can it be done decently?”
“Steinbeck did it, but I think it’s time for another whole story,” the Author says.
“One of yoru own?”
“Nan Deditter won’t like it.”
“Well, we got yeoman service out of ‘Savants,’ and I think it’s important to have one or two complete examples in a book. I’ll risk Nan’s displeasure.
SCOT ON THE ROCKS
Forrest MacFarlane, the only Scottish ghost on the planetoid Ergos, was in a fever of excitement. At the initial clamor of his spaceship detection unit – a homemade mode he’d tinkered together some years before he’d died – he had levitated upstairs and hurried to the big window in the all of MacFarlane Manor. Now he stood squinting intently into the stars. He licked his somewhat vaguely defined lips as his eyes darted about trying to single out a light that moved in the night sky.
Across the valley MacFarlane could make out, with his sharp old Celtic eyes, his archenemy and sole neighbour Roger Holmesby standing on the balcony of Holmesby House. the tall figure of the British phantom stood limned in its own excited, ectoplasmic aura. He, too, was gazing upward. Evidently Holmesby felt his ears turning red, for he turned and peered across at the Manor for a moment or so. Then, with a leer (MacFarlane felt certain) Holmesby raised a tenuous fist and shook it at the Scot. MacFarlane snorted and began again to search among the stars.
The enmity between MacFarlane and Holmesby dated from the day when, seventy-seven years past, Holmesby had wrecked their explorer-craft on Ergos and marooned them hopelessly on this tiny clod in the centre of the Milky Way. The wreck had been accidental, but its cause had not – Holmesby liked to drink, even on watch, and sometimes he drank too much. As a matter of fact, if MacFarlane hadn’t awakened from his sleep and hauled Holmesby’s drunken carcass off the controls just before the ship was about to plummet into Ergos, they might have become wraiths immediately upon their arrival. As it happened, though, the pair had spent years on the planetoid in the corporeal state before natural death had overtaken them both.
Since the day of the disaster MacFarlane had hated the Englishman with all the single-minded concentration a Scotsman can bring to bear upon a fellow son of the glorious Isles. Holmesby was Cockney English through and through but, as the Scot took every opportunity to remind him, a relative latecomer whose bloodline dated certainly no farther back than the Jutes.
At last MacFarlane thought he discerned something moving in the sky. His gaze settled upon a single point of brilliance that seemed a bit redder than most of the others, an iota larger than it had been a few seconds earlier. Was it…, could he dare hope? “Con it be true?” he murmured in his thick burr. “It is, thonk God! A rocket!” A rocket. “Offer all these years,” MacFarlane sobbed. “Solvation fro’ this miserable oxistence!”
It had, indeed, been miserable, for not only had he to put up with Holmesby, he had also to live on Ergos which was very small. Its circumference was a mere twenty-five hundred miles, but its density was rather great, so it had a gravity comparable with that of Earth. Its atmosphere was breathable, it had fertile soil, plenty of water – in short, it was entirely livable. From MacFarlane’s viewpoint, however, there was something intolerably wrong with Ergos – it looked a lot like England.
In all the planet there was not a true highland to be seen, not an upland stream nor a glen where MacFarlane could seclude himself and dream of the Auld Land; not a stone, not a blade of grass that looked the least like Scotland. There was nothing but a bunch of blasted moors and this valley with its river that looked like the Wye. MacFarlane could only wait – his ectoplasm turning a pallid grey with yearning – and hope that someday a rocket from home would somehow come to carry his shade away from this heavenly Hell.
In the first years it had not been so bad. There had been the house to build, crops to discover and grow, the countryside to explore. Eventually, though, the novelty of the situation had warn off, and MacFarlane had been left with only the prospect of death as a release from his prison, for when MacFarlane had died he had been horrified to discover a scientific principle – one of many such principles, he often bitterly reflected, as no mortal could possibly divine: a ghost may not travel through a vacuum without dissipating its ectoplasm throughout that vacuum. Since all ectoplasm is sentient, any attempt to levitate to Earth would mean scattering one’s mind all over the universe. The task of pulling oneself together under such circumstances, of course, would prove Herculean, if not totally impossible. MacFarlane had therefore abandoned himself to hating Holmesby.
Holmesby had died first. Perhaps, if Holmesby hadn’t decided to haunt MacFarlane in lieu of something better to do, the Scotsman wouldn’t have hated him quite so intensely. At any rate, Forrest would have hated the Englishman quite a bit, for in life Holmesby had been a churlish sort of Cockney oaf, but as a shade he bagan to affect a monocle and the airs of the English country gentry. Worse, he began to refer to himself as “Colonel” Holmesby. He had, in fact, never risen higher in the Space Service thanPilot Second Class, and it had been MacFarlane who was in commond of their explorecraft.
These thoughts raced through Forrest MacFarlane’s mind in chaotic fashion as he watched the slowly brightening light in the heavens. At last he tore his eyes away and looked again across the valley toward Holmesby House – it was just a triffle bigger than MacFarlane Manor. It stood on a hillock that was infinitesimally higher than the Scot’s, and it was surrounded by trees that were slightly taller and more imposing than those that enriched its counterpart across the valley.
As MacFarlane stood quietly in the breeze that fluttered like an old rag about the house, a wave of rage welled from some floodgate deep within him and coursed along the paths his blood had once taken. “Curse him!” MacFarlane muttered. “O’ course, the black knave will attempt to thwart me in my efforts to escape. But he shal na’ do it!” Again he mumbled a bleak epithet beneath his nebulous breath and turned once more to the stars.
But he could not concentrate on the approaching rocket. MacFarlane could think only of how much he wanted to leave. And he had to admit that it was probable Holmesby had an equal desire to leave Ergos, but that wasn’t the worse of it – only one of them could go. The reason for this situation lay in another of the scientific principles that governed the behaviour of ectoplasm. (Curse scientific principles, MacFarlane caught himself thinking as he remembered the words – the fateful words of old Prof. MacDogall, late of Jupiter College, Edinburgh – “The thing we must all remember about basic principles is that they are so widely applicable.”) Though made of the essence of void, ectoplasm reacts to various stimuli and shows many of the properties of a liquid. In the presence of living flesh, ectoplasm displays a tremendous affinity for other masses of ectoplasm.
Thus, if both Holmesby and MacFarlane attempted to stow away on the approaching space ship, the living human beings aboard would act as catalyst, and the two phantoms would merge to form one ghostly (MacFarlane thought, ghastly!) entity, and prospect neither of the specters could bear even to think about. MacFarlane shuddered. “ ‘Tis a thing that must never come to pass! I must get aboard th’ ship forst! Holmesby will neverrr dare to follow. I must be the forst aboard,” the Scotsman whispered prayerfully.
MacFarlane finally refocused his eyes on the rocket and gave it his entire attention. By this time the pinpoint of flame had become very large. A few ragged clouds frothed across his view now and then, making it difficult for him to determine the direction the shop was taking. After a few more minutes of observation, however, he decided that the rocket was approaching the planet directly rather than obliquely. The captain of the ship had evidently decided that the small size of the planet made reconnaissance orbiting too difficult.
As MacFarlane stood onhis balcony making mental calculations regarding the ship’s landing point he was suddenly startled by a cough behind him. Turning, he saw Holmesby standing in the hallway.
“Good evening Forrest,” Holmesby said.
Standing close beside one another, the ghosts presented quite a contrast. The Englishman was tall and broad-shouldered, attired in evening dress. His monocle twinkled in the starlight, and his walking stick dangled in a debonaire manner from his left arm, but there was something about the set of his chin, and those shifting eyes…
On the other hand, Forrest MacFarlane was short and thin. Much smaller than Holmesby, the Scot could nonetheless draw himself up with such dignity when aroused that he would appear to be at least the equal of an Englishman. Add to this fact the flashing blue eyes, the stern set of his mouth, the jaunty tartan kilt, and one had a man who… well, a man.
MacFarlane eyed Roger Holmesby coldly for a moment then went back to watching the ship.
“I said, good evening, MacFarlane. Haven’t you got the common decency to answer a gentleman?”
MacFarlane whirled about, his tartan plaid kaleidoscoping in the starlight. “Aye, I have…, for a gentlemon. But not for ye! Yon ship gies me the long-sought, final nay to all yere gab. So, away wi’ ye, and dinna come back.
Holmesby laughed and looked at the sky. Then he cackled again. The rickety old house creaked in the wind. MacFarlane was silhouetted in the soft glow of an intense Milky Way, glaring at Holmesby. The Englishman, a mere shadow of himself, sank deep into the tongues of blackness that curled out of the hallway.
“Then ‘tis a fight, Holmesby?”
“If you’re foolish enough to fight, it is.”
“Then on yere way,” MacFarlane roared.
The Englishman turned as though to leave, and MacFarlane looked away from him just as the ship came roaring down into the valley. The Scotsman was too excited to remember that one should never turn one’s back on Roger Holmesby.
Captain Emilio DeQuinta took the various test reports as they were handed to him and tabulated their results. Seventy-five minutes of calculation proved conclusively that the planet on which they had landed was habitable in every sense of the word. He yawned, stretched, and was about to go to his compartment until morning which, he reckoned, would be in about seven hours.
The crew of the Starship Explorer Orion, which formed the laboratories and intergalactic home of one hundred members of the Bureau of Extragalatic Surveys, had been working hard during the nine hours of approach. Now that they had landed on Ergos, they could bide their time and explore at leisure. A few hours of rest would be, if not absolutely necessary, at least advisable. Captain DeQuinta took a few steps towards the door when, suddenly, it opened and Briggley, the steward, saluted and handed him a note.
DeQuinta took the paper and read it. His eyes widened. He read it again, then he stuffed it into his pocket and started hurriedly up toward the cabin deck where the observatory was located. As he was passing the Zoological Lab, Doug Douglas, the young zoologist, hailed him.
“Where to, Captain?” the young man asked and smiled. Douglas was medium-sized, lithe, and sandy-headed. His face was broad and red, very smooth except around the eyes where creases of amusement were noticeable. It was imperative that every space ship have at least one of these bright, imperturbably optimistic young men aboard, for obvious reasons.
The Captain paused. He glanced at Douglas and said, “I’m off to inspect a bit of real estate.”
“Real estate? Can you wait just a moment, Captain, while I encapsulate an animal that’s just died? That is, if you don’t mind my tagging along.”
“Okay,” DeQuinta answered, “but hurry it up.”
“Be just a sec, sir,” Douglas slipped the body of a white rat into a small plastic container, attached a nozzle on its cover to a vacuum pump, and pressed a button. The pump drew all the air out of the container, a valve snapped shut, and Douglas took off the hose. He set the preserved rat on a table and turned to accompany DeQuinta. “I’ll label it when I get back,” the young man said as he fell into step. “Sure wish we had the facilities to carry out all the mortality tests necessary on our own animals.” He had to walk fast to keep up with DeQuinta. “What’s all this about real estate?”
“Parnassey up in the observatory says she’s discovered a couple of houses sitting on some hills right above us. We’re going up to take a look.
“Houses” On an uncharted planet? What kind of houses?”
“You know as much as I do. Here were are.” The two men reached the cabin deck and went down the passageway to the observatory. Lois Parnassey was standing, petite and pretty even in coveralls, at the great quartz semidome, looking out over the dimly lighted landscape.
As the men approached she turned and glanced at them. Douglas winked at her. She looked down her nose at him, but she blushed. They joined her at the semidome, and she pointed out the houses to them. “See, there they are,” she said, “one on that hill and the other is across that way. You can just make out their silhouettes against the stars.”
Douglas permitted himself one more admiring glance before he turned to look out of the semidome. But when he finally caught sight of Holmesby House and MacFarlane Manor he forgot Lois, hard as that was to do. Even in the uncertain light he could see that the former was a Victorian-style dwelling, and the latter was of the rustic type of structure he had seen in out-of-the-way sections of the Scotland he had visited with his parents when he was a child. He’d never forget those homes. It was almost as though their memories were blood memories.
After several minutes of observation Dogulas, with all the enthusiasm he could muster, turned to the Captain. “Sir,” he said, “why couldn’t I go out and look things over? Parnassey could accompany me, and we’d be quite safe. We’d be within hailing distance.”
DeQuinta was about to say no, but he was curious also. He would have liked to go, but regulations prevented for the moment. He hesitated, then he said, “All right, but be careful. Our detectors have found no traces of large living things or toxic substances in the atmosphere, so it’s probably safe. But check with the ship regularly. We’ll be standing by.”
Douglas saluted and broke away. He beckoned to Lois who was staring at him. “Thank you, sir,” he mumbled. He grabbed Lois’s hand and began pulling her along behind him. Finally she began to hurry, too, and the clatter of their footsteps echoed through the cabin deck as they receded into the centre of the ship.
By the time they were ready to leave word had spread, and the rest of the crew clustered threw the toggle switch the opened the airlock doors – with the first gust that swept into the ship Holmesby entered. Sucked in on the wave of fresh air. No one saw him, and if anyone heard his smug laughter, it went unnoticed in the general babble.
“Now we shall see,” Holmesby chortled, his invisible face screwing itself in the caricature of a grin. He settled himself in the Captain’s chair in the pilot house, lit a cigar he had dreamed into pseudo-existence, and relaxed contentedly. The first stage of his homeward journey had commenced – and the hardest stage at that.
While Holmesby was enjoying his smokeless smoke, Douglas and Parnassey proceeded across the valley towards the abode of Forrest MacFarlane, originally of Scotland, late of the planet Ergos, and likely to remain. The grass was lush, the valley was peaceful, and the stars cast a goodly bit of light through a clear sky. The young man and woman speculated on the houses and, finally reaching MacFarlane Manor, they examined the structure carefully, taking samples of the wood and stone from which it was fashioned; gathering specimens of dust, dirt, and even some of the insects that crawled and flew hither and yon. It was not until they opened the warped door and peered into the musty hall that MacFarlane’s lurid speech could be heard.
Douglas stared into the interior of the house. Lois started backward – their surprise was complete, for the shipboard instruments had definitely indicated the absence of any but the lowest forms of life. The zoologist glanced at his colleague and said, “You stay here. I’ll be right back.” He started forward.
“Doug…!” Lois started to call, but it was too late. Douglas was already inside.
It was in the closet on the right-hand side of the front stairs that he found MacFarlane bound tightly in a heaving mass of cobweb filaments. Douglas didn’t even need a flashlight for MacFarlane was glowing a furious crimson as he shouted and struggled to be free.
“Weel, dinna stond there lookin’ like the onintelligent gowk ye no doubt be!” roared thephantom, beside himself. Douglas stepped backwards, his incredulous eyes reflecting MacFarlane’s intense light. “Ond dinna run awa’, for I willna do ye harm. Free me, if youwill, young mon…” His glow faded to magenta as he looked up at Douglas.
It took a good deal of courage to do what Douglas did then. But, of course, to be a spaceman one must have courage and clean habits. Douglas drew his knife and cut the cobwebs binding the Scottish shade, muttering, as he did so, “What the heck are you?”
“I, sor, om a Scotsman!” shouted MacFarlane, leaping free. “I micht odd, I om also a gentlemon ghost, marooned here some seventy-odd years ago. ‘Tis long and long I’ve waited to see ye, laddie, and forgie me for shoutin’ at ye the way I did.”
Douglas, seeing that MacFarlane was standing away and evidently meant him no harm, shouted aloud, “It’s all right, Lois! I’ll be out in a few minutes. Keep a watch out there, and don’t alarm the ship.” Then, still looking at the ghost, he shook his head and said, “How do you do, Mr. MacFarlane. I am Lieutenant Douglas of the Starship Explorer Orion.”
A spaceman sees some strange things, so he gets used to accepting the unbelievable, and gradually Douglas was coming to realize that the Scotsman was not a figment, that he existed – or at least had existed at one time. Soon the young man was learning the way and wherefore of MacFarlane’s presence, about the marooning of the two spacemen, and about Holmesby who had, by this time, undoubtedly made good his triumph over the Gaelic shade.
“Yes, lod, I’m sore afraid thot despicable English banshee is now resting securely aboard your ship. Ond how am I to oust him? I canna tell.”
“But,” asked Douglas, “why can’t you both embark aboard the Orion? You wouldn’t take up any room at all, you know.” MacFarlane knew that Douglas, as a scientist, would understand about general principles, so he explained the properties and propensities of ectoplasm in the presence of a catalyst. “It does look pretty hopeless, Mac,” Doug agreed. By this time he was in complete accord with MacFarlane, for, although he was not a native Scot, Doug’s sense of fair play and MacFarlane’s description of Holmesby and his tactics had biased him. “I wish I could help,” he said “but zoologists don’t have much to do with ectoplasm.”
MacFarlane heard Doug say “ectoplasm” and “zoologist,” and the idea hit him. It was so simple, and so beautiful, that he couldn’t make words pass his writhing lips for a moment. “Ah, but wait, lad!” MacFarlane finally croaked, his eyes burning like arc lamps. “Ye say ye’re the ship’s zoologist? Do you still bottle up the wee dead beasties as we used to do?” Doug nodded. “Hark, perhaps I have a wee plan.”
“Can I let my partner in on it?” Douglas asked. He could hear Lois outdoors making fretful, impatient noises.
“Are you all right?” she called.
MacFarlane nodded, reluctantly. “Come ye richt bock now,” he said.
When finally Lois and Doug emerged from MacFarlane Manor it was with smiles. They said nothing and began walking to the ship. Slowly, not too obviously, Doug put his arm around her to help her over the rough places. MacFarlane was right behind them, and he missed nothing.
Forrest MacFarlane waited outside for a while. He waited until a noise, a horrified scream so high in pitch that only he could hear it, resounded through the valley. A moment later he gratefully watched the shade of Roger Holmesby emerge from the lock of the ship like a purple streak, pursued by a long and wavering line of ectoplasmic bodies: the shades of all the white mice, hamsters, and rabbits which had given up their lives courageously for science during the course of the Orion’s voyage, and which now sought to merge with the insubstantial substance which was Holmesby. For, at MacFarlane’s suggestion, Douglas had momentarily opened the vacuum-sealed plastic sarcophagi in which the animals had beenplaced immediately after their giving up the ghost. Now, they were leaving the ship, hot on Holmesby’s streaking trail.
Several days later, whenthe scientists aboard the Orion had satisfied their curiosity regarding the planet Ergos and had marked it for colonization, the starship blasted off. A jubilant Scottish phantom watched the disembodied fists of Roger Holmesby, vibrating madly from the balcony of Holmesby House, diminish swiftly into the distance.
“Dinna worry, ye grommetable Britisher! Another ship will be along… in a coople o’ years.” Forrest MacFarlane chuckled and settled himself comfortably into a chair in the observatory. “Ond I hope ye enjoyth’ company o’ yere new neighbours meantime,” he murmured sleepily. The sound of the rocket motors was like a lullaby. MacFarlane of Ergos had nothing to do now but wait.
Dialect 3: standard American
“Whatta ya know,” Fred says, “a science-fiction ghost story! I take it that, among other things, it’s supposed to illustrate genre writing. Am I right?”
“That, and some of the dangers and problems associated with writing dialect. It’s usually pretty hard to get away with. Generally speaking, it’s best to stay away from dialect and go with straight standard American diction.”
“Yes, as distinguished from regional American dialects.”
“You mean ‘standard’ like the dialogue of the young couple in the story, Douglas and Parnassey?”
“And Captain DeQuinta.”
“I hate ghost stories,” Fred mutters, curling his lip and shoving his forelock back into position with an offhand flip of his fingers.
“They’re so…,” Fred hunts for the word. “Insubstantial,” he says finally.
“No more than you are,” the Author retorts. Fred does not reply. He lets his head and his hair hang down while he sits with his thin elbows on his bare knees – he is wearing shorts and a tee shirt. “Sorry, Fred, that was uncalled-for.”
“But I see what you mean about dialogue written in dialect,” Fred Foyle says leaning back in his chair.
“Don’t you think it works?” the Author asks.
“I guess you get away with it because the story is humorous,” Fred replies, “but I don’t think you would have in a serious story. I notice you didn’t try to do a real British dialect with Holmesby.”
“No, you’re right. There I just used a slightly elevated level of diction to imply his snootiness.”
“Whatever made you attempt such a thing in the first place?” Fred sits back in the Lazyboy, sticks the little finger of his left hand into his ear and jiggles it.
“I wrote the first draft of that story when I was teenager learning how to write – I was in the Navy at the time, taking a correspondence course in fiction writing. I guess I just didn’t know any better. I wouldn’t have tried if I’d known a bit more about the hazards of dialect writing.”
“I’ll bet you’d hate to have to have a real Scotsman read it, eh?” Fred looks up and grins. “Did you ever publish it?”
“In a literary magazine about fifteen years later.” The Author’s eyes go out of focus as he thinks back. “It even won a prize.”
The Author can’t tell whether Fred is genuinely impressed or just putting him on.
“Even though ‘MacFarlane of Ergos’ is a plot story, and the characterization is a little thin, I think I like the old Scotsman,” Fred says.
Diction 4: stereotyping
“Maybe ‘thin’ isn’t quite the right word,” the Author replies, frowning a little. “ ‘Stereotyped’ is maybe more accurate. As a personality, MacFarlane is perhaps the least stereotyped of the characters in the story, but his language is the most stereotyped. What do you like about him particularly?”
“His feistiness,” Fred answers immediately, “and his stubbornness. They helped him win out in the end.”
“The most important weapon a protagonist has in his or her conflict is character. It’s in the performance of deeds that the protagonist’s character reveals itself…”
“Deeds and speech,” Fred interposes. “But isn’t it possible for a writer to do a decent job with dialect?”
“How do you like this?” the Author asks:
“Aha!” sez Brer Fox, sezee, “you’re dar, is you?” sezee. “Well I’m gwineter smoke you out, ef it takes a month. You’re mine dis time,” sezee.
Brer Rabbit ain’t saying nothing.
“Ain’t you comin’ down?” sez Brer Fox, sezee.
Brer Rabbit ain’t saying nothing.
Then Brer Fox he went out aft er some wood, he did, and when he came back he heard Brer Rabbit laughing.
“W’at you laughin’ at, Brer Rabbit?” sez Brer Fox, sezee.
“Can’t tell you, Brer Fox, sez Brer Rabbit, sezee.
“Better tell, Brer Rabbit,” sez Brer Fox, sezee.
“ ‘Tain’t nuthin’ but a box er money somebody done gone an’ lef’ up here in de chink er de chimbly,” sez Brer Rabbit, sezee.
“Don’t b’leeve you,” sez Brer Fox, sezee.
“Look up en see,” sez Brer Rabbit, sezee. And when Brer Fox looked up, Brer Rabbit spit his eyes full of tobacco juice, he did, and Brer Fox he made a break for the branchof the stream. Then Brer Rabbit came down and told the ladies good-by.
“How you git ‘im off, Brer Rabbit?” sez Miss Meadows, sez she.
“Who? Me?” sez Brer Rabbit, sezee. “W’y I just tuck en tole ‘im date f he didn’t go ‘long home en stop playing his pranks on spectubble folks, dat I’d take ‘im out and thrash ‘im, sezee.
Fred’s eye’s are as wide as they can get. His jaw is slack and he is making little gurgling noises in the back of his throat. Suddenly, his mouth snaps shut. It’s a moment before he can say anything. “What is that?” he manages at last. “Is that O’Hara doing mock-Southern dialect again?”
“No way,” the Author types. “That is Joel Chandler Harris, a nineteenth-century American fiction writer, doing dialogue for characters in his Brer Rabbit series. They’re considered to be children’s classics.”
“Where was he from?”
“Harris was a native Georgian,” the Author replies.
“I thought you said that only outsiders can truly hear the dialect of their region?”
“That’s not Southern dialect, Fred. Figure it out. What is it?”
Silence. Then, “It’s ‘Negro’ dialect, isn’t it?”
“No. It’s Harris’ stereotypical conception of how plantation blacks spoke in the last century. Harris was almost as much an outsider as any other while person. How do youlike it?”
Fred shakes hishead so vigorously that his hair falls down all over his face. He shoves it back, gets up, and begins to pace as much as it’s possible to do so in the narrow garret. “That’s a classic? It’s extremely annoying,” he says. “I can’t imagine reading a whole story of that, let alone a whole book. Who’s that narrating?”
“Uncle Remus. He’s an old plantation black who’s supposed to be relating Negro folklore through his animal characters.”
“That ‘sezee’ stuff is infuriating,” Fred says. His voice is a growl. He suddenly sits down. “What are you trying to tell me?”
“That what one can ‘get away with’ depends on a number of factors, including the historical period in which one writes, the audience for whom one writes, one’s talent, and so on.”
“No one could get away with writing like that today?”
“But it remains a classic?”
Diction 5: pidgin
The author shrugs. He drops Harris’ book back onto the pile on the floor behind him and picks up another one. “Try this,” he says:
I started to get up but Makino, the cook, grabbed my arm and translated, “She not angry. Only she say very dangerous Fumiko-san walk with Americans.”
“She wasn’t walking,” I cried. “She was sitting here.”
“Please!” Makino protested. “I not speak good. Trouble too much.”
Now Mike started to join the Takarazuka girls but Makino pleaded with him, “Soon you leave Japan, Mike-san. I got to stay. Please, no trouble.” He whisked away the dishes from which Fumiko-san had been eating and Mike and I sat glumly staring at our mess of tempura.
Fred looks thoughtful. “I’m not sure,” he says. “That’s pidgin English, isn’t it?”
“More or less. It’s from James Michener’s Sayonara, published about nine years after the end of World War Two.”
“Perhaps he gets away with that,” Fred says. “It’s not overdone – more a hint of pidgin, I guess, than true pidgin. Is that right?”
Again the Author shrugs. “Some people might consider even that much dialect to be offensive. Here’s how James Norman Hall handles a similar problem in The Far Lands. It’s a book about Pacific islanders, also published after the Second War”:
“Mama Ruau, what would he be like – Uri? As a lover mean?”
“How should I know?” the old woman muttered, testily.
“What would it matter, what he is like?” another girl said. “I wish he would take me, just once. I would like to boast that I’d been loved by the nephew of Puaka!”
“I’ve had him,” another girl said. The others protested loudly at this assertion, saying that Uri would not even glance at so homely a creature.
“He didn’t care about my face; it was my body he wanted; anyway it was at night that he took me.”
“Why haven’t you told us before?” another asked.
“Because I knew you wouldn’t believe me. But he did. Truly he did.”
“Is that supposed to be pidgin?” Fred asks.
The Author shrugs – it’s getting to be a habit. “It doesn’t matter, does it? If the reader wants it to be pidgin, then it is; if he or she wants it to be Maori or another Pacific language, then it is. Actually, it’s standard English in rather simple syntactical constructions. Rather than use some sort of dialect, Hall lets the syntax suggest an uncomplicated life-style.”
“But Michener was showing the way some Japanese, who are somewhat conversant with English, would sound in comparison with Americans speaking a rather colloquial English.”
“That’s true. Hall had no contrasting levels of diction in that passage. Here’s how he and his co-author, Charles Nordhoff, handle a scene from their book No More Gas, in which a native Tahitian, Jonas, is speaking with two Europeans, a doctor and a lawyer”:
“That’s all right with me, Monsieur Dorme,” Jonas said, when the attorney had finished. “If you got a pen handy I’ll sign right off.”
“Your sister, Effie, will have to sign with you,” the attorney remarked.”
“I’ll send down for her.” “Throwing back the coverlet, Jonas got to his feet with surprising agility. Then, remembering that he was supposed to be ill, he said: “I’m feeling a lot better already, Doctor. Shouldn’t wonder if it was the cockfight made me feel so miserable. I didn’t see how I was going to tell you about that.”
The house shook under his tread as he walked across the veranda. Several children were playing below. “Tane,” he called. “Run down to Aunt Effie’s house and tell her I want her. Right away!”
“And we must have a witness,” Dorme continued. “Is there anyone here who could serve? Your cousin, Ropati, of course, would not do.”
“I don’t want him to know, anyway,” said Jonas. “There’s no need to tell the rest of the family about this.”
No difference in dialect,” Fred says. “Only a slightly heightened level of diction when the doctor and the lawyer speak.”
“But there’s enough of it to differentiate betweent he characters, especially in the context of the story,” the Author points out.
“Buy the way, although in their Pacific Ocean books Nordhoff and Hall don’t do dialect, inthis book theydid have one character, a Tahitian named Chester, who stuttered, and they did attempt to show that on the page. Chester in this passage is in a cab; he’s been voyaging about, and he’s bringing home a fighting cock”:
“You du-du-don’t need to tell me,” his passenger replied. “Take it easy,”
“Thought you was in a hurry to get home?”
“I am, but you forget what I got back here.”
The driver immediately slowed down. “I wasn’t thinking,” he said, blankly. “He ain’t hurt, is he?”
“Hope not; bu-bu-but another jolt like that last one… Stop a minute. I want to have a love.”
Fred nods. “I’m not sure the authors should have done that, but they don’t do much of it, do they?”
“Not much. But in this case the stuttering is a characterizing trait of the Chester persona.”
“And there’s more done with the levels of diction in that scene, too. The cab driver’s speech is base.”
Diction 6: elevation
“You mentioned ‘standard American’ English,” Fred continues. “Is there such a thing as ‘standard British’ English?”
The Author frowns into the monitor. “I’m not sure there is,” he types. “I just recently finished watching the PBS series, The Story of English, and the British isles are so regionalized that sometimes a person from one section can hardly understand the dialect of a person from another section.” He shakes his head. “Not only that, but the population is stratified in classes as well, and each person can recognize the caste of another simply by hearing him or her speak – think of Eliza Doolittle and Prof. Henry Higgins in the Lerner and Loewe musical My Fair Lady.”
“Oh, yes!” Fred says. “I was playing some of your tapes and cd’s while you were sleeping the other evening, and I listened to it.” He grins and blinks behind the lock of fallen hair. “Higgins transforms Eliza.”
“Yes, she begins as a cockney who habitually drops initial aitches and calls the professor “Enry ‘Iggins, and ends as a young woman who can’t be distinguished from a member of the aristocracy.
“By the way,” he says, “that piece of literature began as a drama, Pygmalion, by the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw; was turned into a musical script by the two Americans, of wound up as a screenplay. We’ll talk more about that kind of thing in the next chapter titled Types of Speech.”
“Fine,” Fred says, “but answer my question.”
Format and punctuation 4
“Well, here’s a bit of dialogue by the contemporary British fiction writer Frederic Raphael. It’s from a story titled ‘Sleeps Six.’ Something else the British have that differs from us – in addition to a common language – is their use of quotation marks. You’ll notice that they start off with single quote rather than doubles, as we do”:
‘Oh for God’s sake, Philip, pull yourself together. You’re behaving like a silly old woman throwing crockery at the wall.’
‘If I’m a silly old woman then I’m a silly old woman.’
‘You’re a silly old who man who’s ruining by bloody holiday. I don’t mind for myself, I mind for Sherry. I mind for the kids. Pull yourself together.’
‘I’ve had my fill of that. I now propose to pull myself apart.’
Diction 7: vocabulary and idiom
“It doesn’t look any different to me as far as the syntax of the sentence goes,” Fred says peering over the Author’s shoulder at the monitor. “But somehow it sounds different.”
“It’s the vocabulary and the idiom, mainly, rather than the grammatical constructions.”
Fred steps back. “I know what ‘vocabulary’ means, and I’ve heard and seen the term ‘idiom,’ but I’ve never really gotten a handle on it, if you dig me.”
“Idiom means, according to the Random House Dictionary, ‘an expression whose meaning cannot be derived from its constitute elements, as kick the bucket in the sense of “to die.” “ Or, for that matter, to dig or get a handle on in the sense of ‘to understand.’ “
“You mean slang,” Fred says.
“Not necessarily. An expression may begin as the slang – or ‘popular jargon’ – of a particular generation, but once it enters the language permanently it becomes an idiomatic expression.”
Fred looks at the monitor again. “Scroll back to that speech,” he asks, “I want to see something – there it is, ‘bloody’ – that’s what you mean by vocabulary and idiom.”
“Yes. That term is peculiarly British. They use it nearly all the time, the same way that Canadians are always saying, ‘eh?’ and Americans say, ‘okay.’ And Americans wouldn’t say, ‘throwing crockery,’ we’d say ‘throwing dishes.’
“That’s the first meaning of ‘idiom,’ the Author continues, but the second meaning is really what this chapter is all about: ‘a language, dialect, or style of speaking peculiar to a people.’ We could go on forever talking about this, but H.L. Mencken pretty well saturated the subject in his multivolume The American Language. If you want to see the American master of idiom, read Mark Twain, and if you want to see the British master, read Charles Dickens.”
“So your use of elevated diction to characterize Holmesby in ‘MacFarlane of Ergos’ was unidiomatic, and your use of Scots dialect was stereotypical, and – generally speaking – foolhardy.” Fred is clearly enjoying himself.
“Young and foolhardy,” the Author interjects.
“When, for instance, you have Holmesby say, ‘I said, good evening, MacFarlane. Haven’t you got the common decency to answer a gentleman?’ all you have going for your character is a slightly elevated diction.”
Foreign words and terms
“Nolo contendere,” the Author says.
“Nolo contendere – Latin for, ‘I won’t argue the point.’ “
“Can you do that in fiction?” Fred asks, pointing to the Latin.
“As a matter of fact, it’s not a bad idea to stick in, let’s say, a bit of obvious French or German, perhaps, to indicate that a character is speaking with an accent, rather than try to imitate the accent. This is form Nordhoff and Hall’s No More Gas also”:
Format and punctuation 5
“I brought in a three-gallon demijohn of red wine,” Chester put in. “It’s out in the car. Maybe we could get along without the food till morning.”
“Eita roa’tu” Fana exclaimed. “We got to have a snack tonight to keep us going. And two more demijohns.”
“I take it that foreign words and terms go in italics,” Fred says, “even when they’re just being used to give the impression of an accent.”
“Always,” the Author says. “Btu let me get back to the question of British English for a moment. I said Dickens was the master of British idiom, but so was Thomas Hardy. Here’s a passage from The Return of the Native, set in the southwest quarter of England (remember, I’m still using British punctuation, so there’s no mistake in the two single quotes that begin this dialogue; the second one indicates an elision, a missing letter. We’d recognize it if the ‘a were an ‘e, meaning he)”:
‘ ‘A faltered on from one day to another, and then we heard he was gone.’
‘D’ye think he had great pain when ‘a died?’ said Christian.
‘O no: quite different. Nor any pain of mind. He was lucky enough to be God A ‘mighty’s own man.’
‘And other folk – d’ye think ‘twill be much pain to ‘em, Master Fairway?’
‘That depends on whether they be afeared.’
‘I bain’t afeard at all, I thank God!’ said Christian strenuously. ‘I’m glad I bain’t, for then ‘twon’t pain me… I don’t think I be afeard – or if I be I can’t help it, and I don’t deserve to suffer. I wish I was not afeard at all!’
“That looks hard!” Fred exclaims.
“You have to have confidence you have a total grasp on dialect to try a whole novel of that,” the Author says. Fred thinks he hears an edge of envy in the tone of the Author’s voice. “Much better just to do what J.R.R. Tolkien, the great British fantasy writer and Medieval scholar, does in his trilogy, Lord of the Rings. He just uses elevated diction and a slightly formal syntax to suggest an ancient language”:
Gimil shivered. They had brought only one blanket apiece. ‘Let us light a fire,’ he said. ‘I care no longer for the danger. Let the Orcs come thick as summer moths round a candle!’
‘If those unhappy hobbits are astray in the woods, it might draw Aragorn. ‘We are near to the mountain-marches of the traitor Saruman. Also we are on the very edge of Fangorn, and it is perilous to touch the trees of that wood, it is said.’
“Point taken,” Fred says. “Where dialect is concerned, less is more.”
“That’s the way it is with most things,” the Author replies. “Less is always better than too much.”
©Andrea MarshallDodgson 1973