Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Oft-turned phrases

Using the Oxford English Corpus, encompassing about two billion words of 21st-century English, Hargraves found peculiar patterns in simple words like the verb “brush.” Everybody talks about brushing their teeth, but other possible companions, like “hair,” “strand,” “lock” and “lip,” appear up to 150 times more frequently in fiction than in any other genre. “Brush” appears near “lips” when two characters’ lips brush against each other or one’s lips brush against another’s cheek — as happens so often in novels. For the hair-related collocations, Hargraves concludes that “fictional characters cannot stop playing with their hair.”
“Bolting upright” and “drawing one’s breath” are two more fiction-specific turns of phrase revealed by the corpus.
~"The Mechanic Muse: The Jargon of the Novel, Computed," by Ben Zimmer (in The New York Times)

Presumably the study would also reveal the myriad barking dogs in the fictional distance. 

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