Saturday, June 4, 2011

Parts of Speech, First Words, and the Books I Like

I received a copy of the fall 2010 edition of Southern Indiana Review Thursday. I'd been waiting for the spring issue to show up, thinking that was the one I was in. But apparently, I was in the fall issue--I simply hadn't been sent my contributor copy. So interested readers can check out purchasing a copy here. My contribution, a story, is called "Such Great Misery of Late."

I'd planned to blog on May expenses this week, but because this publication arrived, I figured I'd blog on something language oriented instead. Last week sometime, I was giving thought to how stories start--that is, what their first sentences, or even first words, are. I was wondering if there were any patterns among books that I like. So I did a survey. Each year, I pick out three books I read that year as my favorites, one nonfiction work, one collection of stories, and one novel. My list goes back about fifteen years. Those books become part of my personal library at home. Are there patterns among these favorite books? Do they differ between fiction and nonfiction? Here's what I found . . .

Of the forty-five books surveyed, "The" led six times, for the lead. Next up, at three each, were "It," "I," and "When." "My" and "This" both came in at two. Really, though, these word selections seemed to incidental to do much with--too many ones. So I figured I'd look at the words in another way--by parts of speech. The breakdown goes as follows:

Nonfiction works on my favorites list lead with the given parts of speech in the following distribution:

Fiction broke down somewhat similarly, though with a bit more variety:

So the total breaks down like this:

Note that verbs never lead as the first word in the book in any of my favorite texts, though two gerunds did show up (one in nonfiction, one in fiction). Pronouns (which are split between possessive adjectives and nouns in the charts above) were popular, forging 42 percent of the first words (with relative pronouns making up 21 percent of those, or 9 percent overall). Articles accounted for 16 percent, and proper nouns 13 percent.

I suppose for some of these works we could get into an argument over what the first word of the book is. Sometimes, there's a preface. Should I count that? An epigraph? A chapter title? I counted none of these. Basically, I went with the first word of the text proper.

Then I got curious as to how my own writing would stack up. So here's a chart with a breakdown of the parts of speech in my thirteen published stories. Among those stories, two each start with "The," "At," and "That." Parts of speech run as follows:

On my list, pronouns forge 38 percent of the first words, which isn't far from the percent among my favorite books. Articles accounted for 15 percent, again close, and proper nouns for 15 percent as well. I guess the one pattern I do see is that while my work mimics the percentages on the overall list, it mimics the fiction even more closely than it does the nonfiction, which tends to start with prepositions less frequently.

So what does all this indicate? I'm not sure. It could mean that my own writing generally mimics those works that I like; it could mean that works I like tend to conform to my own writing. Or it could just mean that among the English language in general, the parts of speech that lead off a sentence fall into a pattern close to what I've outlined in my favorite works and in my own work. I suspect it's probably the latter. But the only way to find out would be to do a much more exhaustive survey of works published in English. Anyone interested in taking up that survey? I know I'd be interested in reading it, but if you think I'm too lazy to conduct the survey myself, you're right. In fact, I just realized that I have fourteen published stories--that other story starts with a preposition. Alas, I'm not going back to redo the chart.

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