Language, Linguistic Competence and Stylistic Effects
Language is the surface of the literary work.
It is the sound barrier of literature.
It is the carrier and conveyor of meanings — a mediator.
Language is a suture between what the writer wants or can express and what the reader accommodates and turns into feelings or pictures.
Writing capabilites unfold in the language. It is not important what you write about. What is important is how you write it. The approach, the subtle language skills, the surface, the softness and hardness of this surface. These are the things that make your literary work unique.
It doesn’t matter how good your story is, if the outcome is bad the value of the work drops drastically.
In one sentence:
The powerful shaping of language is imperative.
That is why I took it upon myself to write an essayish text about the subject. If you want to be a great writer, it’s important to at least know these things. Using them takes practice, and it takes a lot of that.
I hope that, after reading through the whole article, your literary perception broadens, and you will be able to enjoy books (and classics!) even more, finding all the little things great authors use to achieve their desired effects.
How Can You Improve Your Linguistic Competence?
These are the seven most important elements of linguistic competence:
- Studying the works of great literary figures
- Exercises of style and stylization
- The rhythm of language
- The selection of words and images, terminology, jargon
We’ll walk through all the seven elements, and then we’ll walk some more, to rarely visited places such as depictional strategies and the elements of redundancy.
Linguistic precision is selecting the most accurate words for describing what you want to say. Once, when I was reading The Great Gatsby, I came across the word tantalize, and thought it’s genius Fitzgerald wrote that exact word. To tantalize is to torture or torment, right? Well, not exactly.
To tantalize is a special way of saying to torment. The word itself comes from Greek mythology’s Tantalus. He had to stand for eternity in water that receded from him when he bent to drink, beneath fruit trees whose branches were out of reach.
To be tantalized is to crave for something that is there but unattainable, which is a different feeling when compared to the word torment, coming from the Latin torquere, which means to twist, or torture, derived from the same Latin word, but originally referring to inflicting pain by using an instrument.
Finding the most suitable word for describing something is one of the most important elements of linguistic competence.
What you write about must be provable, demonstrable. This point can be a hard one, because you can justify just about anything by claiming that it’s a fantasy element.
Whenever you’re writing a story, knowingly or unknowingly you create a world. All stories are their own worlds. The border of being ignorant about a subject and creating fantasy becomes very clear as you create your stories with their own rules and settings. If you think the reader may feel that something is inauthentic or lacking, you probably don’t know enough about the subject.
Bottom line is, a big part of writing is research, research, research. Don’t write an epic medieval fantasy book ‘til you have sufficient knowledge of the era.
Something that is modern or feels like it, unexpected. This is more defined in poetry, but is important in prose too. If there was no novelty in language, Antigone would still be popular with kids. Novelty of language can be anything, a strange wordplay, a never used combination of two words, the essence of it is that it feels new, modern, and it is unexpected.
“Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”
The bright-night rhyme could be a linguistic novelty during William Blake’s time, because bright literally means the opposite of dark, while night is definitely poorly lit, so the two words which sound similar have also very opposing connotations. And opposing things were all the rage during the Romantic era.
Studying the Works of Great Literary Figures
No matter how many blog posts or Medium articles you read, you can still learn the most from the greats. If one is serious about learning literature, they don’t read books for enjoyment only, they read them like we read books about Math or Chemistry, to learn from them. Both Math and Chemistry have their own notation systems, including the plus sign and the drawings of benzene.
The great classics have their own notations, too, you just have to look for them, but I probably didn’t have to tell you that. What most of us forget is the fact that we have imperfect memory. You’ve got to take notes while reading.
My optimal way of reading is when I can grab a glass of whiskey, maybe light a cigarette, and sit down to read with a notebook and pen. This way, whatever thought occurs to me while reading, I can jot it down. By the end of the book I have dozens of notes I can look at, and then filter the ones that are the biggest revelations. Now, I have something to practice.
This is how most of this article was born, too.
Exercises of Style and Stylization
There is a difference between style and stylization. Style is yours, comes from the inside. It obeys your inner laws. Stylization presumes a willfulness, a distance. Many times there is an estrangement, a kind of transmissius, a strap between you and the text.
There are dozens of these you can choose from, and I can’t give a one-size-fits-all exercise. This is, basically, what you are all already doing: writing. The difference occurs when it is tied with the previous point. After a studying session, you can try out what works and what doesn’t work based on your notes.
Exercises can come from just thinking about writing, too. The main question here is: what if? What if I did this? What if I tried to write a novel without plot? How could I go about it?
A text can be nominal, static and slow, verbal, dynamic and faster, or a bunch of round statements.
Think about the rhythm of language as you would think about music. The easiest way to check it is to read your text aloud. You will hear what needs to be rewritten. Your text should flow, that’s when you know it’s good as it is.
I already wrote an article about the rhythm of language, so be sure to check it out by clicking on the header.
The Selection of Words and Images, Terminology, Jargon
The last most important element of linguistic competence. This is quite self-explanatory, most of this depends on the type of text you’re writing. Is it a fantasy novel or is it an essay for university? These will define your terminology and jargon.
Now, words and images are a different thing and would deserve an article of their own. It is where a lot of previous points play a role. Precision, novelty, your style and rhythm will add to your selection, among other things.
Here you have great freedom, you can build your own system of symbols, even multilayered symbologies, you can choose the whole imagery, returning elements, elegance, and all these are dependant on your narrative as well as on the desired effect you want to achieve.
The important thing is the proper selection of symbols, images and words. I can give you two pieces of advice, one of them is the aforementioned point about studying great literary figures, the other one is the following:
The critical factor of your opus is its language. The weaker your story, the stronger language you must compose it with.
It is true for the language too, what is true for your story’s characters: that, which speaks for itself works.
Considering these seven most important aspects, we can summarise everything with the following sentence:
The shaping of language is always the effect-function of your intention.
Moving on, it is key to eliminate redundancy and to shape the language without sprains and false poses.
First, we’ll look at depictional strategies which will define how you should approach your text, how much you should play around with language and how style and stylization comes into play.
There are two main depictional strategies:
- The story and the transferring of this story is in focus, not your linguistic presentation. Not the linguistic plain, but the historical plain dominates.
- You wish to strengthen your plot via linguistic tools.
The two strategies developed from twentieth-century avant-garde, not much later after all those -isms. Naturally, there are more types, but these two deserve to be dealt with primarily.
You can see the first approach mainly in the media, newspapers. The text is sharpened at its message part. What do I want to say? What do I want to make the reader feel? If we think about our writings in this regard, we leave behind complex symbols, images. What we must concentrate on is precision and dynamics.
Dynamics here mean to make the reader feel something, the game of tension and curiosity. A good article grabs and holds the reader’s attention because they remain curious.
The other approach is the more abstract. Symbols, images appear and the use of dynamics change; tension isn’t created via a message, but with language.
When you mention the word literature, your first thought is probably of the latter approach.
Multilayered depictional strategies:
Basically, a multilayered depictional strategy is alternating between narratives within your novel. There are letters in it, diary entries, different elements of a poem appear from time to time and they start to have a dramaturgic effect.
A great, well-known example of this is One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, where we see the world through the eyes of a deaf guy who is not really deaf. This narrative, at certain times, is broken by flashback stories which are put into parenthesis.
Another would be House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, and this is today’s literature, where there the two narratives are completely different, and I just scratched on the surface of the book’s genius, one being a review of a film, the other the thoughts of a schizophrenic guy who parties with his friend.
I find it significant to understand different depictional strategies in order to appreciate and use it appropriately.
The last subject we’ll be speaking out today, and this is vital, paramount even, is redundancy, or writing economically.
Your work can be genius, your book could be a great hit, but if you’re a windbag, talking at great lenghts but saying little of value, nobody will read it. So, onto our last part.
It is very important to eliminate redundancy. There are six main occurrences of unnecessary language. These are the things we should not do or avoid.
- Cumulative effects, piling up adjectives.
- The overflow of emotions.
- Clichés, stereotypes.
- Inappropriate word selection, obsolescent phrases, spoken language.
- Expressing your opinion.
- Excessive contemplation, intellectual logomachies.
Cumulative Effects, Piling Up Adjectives
A beautiful tall twenty-year-old brown haired Hungarian girl stood next to the building.
This one kills your text. Yes, mine was an exaggerated example, but experience shows a reader cannot accomodate more than two adjectives. This can be used as a guide rather than a strict rule, but still worth mentioning.
Cumulative effects cancel out each other. They are adjective piles on a bigger scale. If I want to mention an extreme case, imagine a story with a dozen climaxes. The text doesn’t breath and you suffocate your reader.
Be subtle, modest, pull the string of your bow back slowly, then release it quietly and your reader won’t even notice that you already struck him.
The Overflow of Emotions
He closed his eyes in sadness. Or “No, I’m okay”, she said funnily.
Everyone met this one. This, too, happens both in small and big. My examples show the small scale. If we put the first one in context, it is probably taking place in a sad, sorrowful scene. I don’t need to write in sadness, because we know he closes his eyes in sadness from the context. The same with the second sentence.
You must assume your reader is an intelligent person.
They will figure it out, you don’t need to feed them every thought and emotion your character experiences. This may seem like common sense, but the biggest issue is we often don’t notice we fell into the trap of typing out everything. Always be aware.
On a bigger scale it is more obvious, there’s no need to go waste word on it. Ever read a book or saw a movie where emotions are just drooling all over? That’s what I’m talking about. Avoid.
Clichés are clichés for a reason, they have the word overused in their definition. If you want to write about something that can be summarised in a cliché, please, for the sake of yourself and your readers, find a different way to express it.
The problem with stereotypes isn’t the lash of social justice warriors, not the truth or mistruth of them. In a way, they are clichés, too. We all know the American black stereotypes, the husband and wife stereotype, etc. And because we already know, they aren’t interesting.
For this, you should avoid clichés and stereotypes.
Clichés and stereotypes are the graves of an otherwise convincing style.
There is, however, one exception to this rule: irony. In irony, clichés and stereotypes become humour, if used well.
Inappropriate Word Selection, Obscolent Phrases, Spoken Language
This is a common mistake, and avoiding inappropriate word selection and obscolent phrases is pretty common sense, but it’s worth mentioning.
A huge part of a literary work’s value is its timelessness. The problem is with our ever-changing language, since how could I write a timeless piece, if two hundred years later people will speak completely different?
Yet, this is why it’s crucial for our linguistic style to be unified, to not borrow obscolent phrases. A good example is when someone is giving a speech, using everyday language, then suddenly picks an archaic word it immediately creates a dissonant effect.
Our writing must mirror today’s language, this way it becomes the simplest, the most beautiful, the most timeless.
Spoken language means the way we actually speak. If we wrote the same way as we spoke, our text would be full of thats, umms, etc. Fortunately, for the most of us this is clear.
We fall in this trap at dialogues. We might think the more accurate we depict spoken language, when our characters speak, the better the dialogue, but it’s not the case. In dialogue, clear, understandable language is still important. And I’m not talking about dialects.
Expressing Your Opinion
Authors have been expressing their opinions using a raisonneur character, who first appeared in dramas. This type of character always represents the writer’s opinion.
Other than that, it’s really not a good idea to tell your opinion to your readers. If you do want to let us know, don’t tell, show.
The writer must play God. Create, then remain silent.
Excessive Contemplation, Intellectual Logomachies
Who’s the smartest? Being intellectual is a good thing, but don’t be one just for the sake of it. Don’t make the reader feel stupid.
Yes, I just told you that while using the word logomachy, but linguistic precision takes precedence. Logomachy literally means word-fighting.
So, when writing, don’t contemplate too much, don’t be a smartass, write what needs to be written, then leave it as it is.
I think we really ought to be aware of the subtle ways of proper expression, and I hope I could show you something worthwhile today.
Let me know what you think about all of this, or if you have another point to add, be sure to write a comment.