Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Context in the written word

‘Who said that?’ asks the reader.

Was the confusing comment addressed to another character? Did the speaker look or gesture at another character immediately before or after saying it?

The last character named is not always the one to whom the next comment refers.

Webster’s New World Dictionary and Thesaurus, second edition (2002) defines ‘context’ as: 1) the parts just before and after a passage, that determine its meaning.

Fred strolled to a seat next to Ethel. “So I hear you’ve decided to become a professional dog walker.”
“Yeah, word travels fast around here.”

This is where some people stop and say, ‘Who said that last sentence?’ For that matter, who said the first sentence? Let’s take a look at the snippet. “So I hear you’ve decided to become a professional dog walker” is positioned on the same line that opens with a mention of Fred, so I’m going to assume that Fred is the speaker. This of course should be confirmed or changed by an additional detail, such as Fred’s next comment marked with a dialog tag.

The second sentence, “Yeah, word travels fast around here” is on a separate line, so a different character must have said it. Context: The first comment was addressed to Ethel, and the reply makes sense for Ethel to have said it, therefore: I’m going to assume that Ethel said it.

In the next sentence or two, the writer should confirm that assumption or make it plain who else spoke.

And really, even though I’ve taken a bunch of words to explain this, when it happens in your brain, it takes at most a couple of seconds if the writer’s done it correctly. There is nothing wrong with a few seconds of confusion on the reader’s part, provided it’s cleared up right away.

Who said that? Uh, oh, Fred addressed himself to Ethel, so Ethel must’ve said it.

Even I can handle being unsure for the couple of seconds it took to straighten that out.


  1. Very interesting. I'm often confused as to who said things, an that's not only in literature ;)
    Great post! I'm definitely following.

  2. Your example was perfectly clear to me without the explaination. But then, that's how I write and I'm often asked to better identify the speaker. I'll have to send people to this post to educate them. :)

  3. *laff*
    Thanks guys, you're both very sweet.

    Had either of you disagreed with me, though, that would've been fine too :)