Are words like 'moreover' and 'ergo' too stodgy for writing fiction?
Published: March 22, 2011
Q: I use words like 'moreover' and 'ergo' in my fiction. Others tell me this is too stodgy. This is the voice I find more comfortable. Must I change it?
A: I wouldn’t strike out any one kind of language in fiction and the same is true for formal words like those you single out in your question. Still, like all other language choices, formal words should be used when appropriate and necessary to the story.
Ethan Canin uses formal language beautifully in his novella “The Palace Thief.” The narrator, William Hundert, is a classics teacher at a boys’ school and formal language is authentic for this character. The story begins like this:
I tell this story not for my own honor, for there is little of that here, and not as a warning, for a man of my calling learns quickly that all warnings are in vain. Nor do I tell it in apology for St. Benedict’s School, for St. Benedict’s School needs no apologies. I tell it only to record certain fortellable incidents in the life of a well-known man, in the event that the brief candle of his days may sometime come under the scrutiny of another student of history.
If you try to use formal language for a fifteen-year-old narrator attending public school in Brooklyn or a kindergarten teacher interacting with her students, you’ll be stretching the bounds of authenticity. Even if you’re not using first person—where the character is speaking directly to the reader—you want to be careful with a more formal voice. Depending on how you use it, a formal voice can sound regal, educated or pompous. If that isn’t serving a purpose or creating a specific effect for the reading experience, it could be off-putting.
Embrace your own tendencies in writing and cultivate your unique authorial voice, but always consider the impact of your choices.
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She
was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for
Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University,
University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a
visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.
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