I just read an article by Kevin Knudson, which appeared on April 30 in Forbes Magazine. It was a book review of Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve, by Ben Blatt. Noting that famous novelists write in their own particular style: Hemingway and the short sentences, Henry James and the longer ones, Virginia Woolf in the free-flowing stream of consciousness, Mr. Blatt, who’s a scientist, wanted to determine if you could figure out who the author was just by examining the pattern of his or her words.
The first chapter tackles the rule that all of us writers learned early, i.e. to use adverbs sparingly. Blatt took it to the scientific level. He took a corpus of novels written by a broad spectrum of famous writers and counts the “LY” adverbs. Here’s what you’ve got:
Author Books looked at Adverbs per 10,000 words
Hemingway 10 80
Mark Twain 13 81
Amy Tan 6 83
Steinbeck 19 93
Vonnegut 14 101
Updike 26 102
Rushdie 9 101
King 51 105
Dickens 20 108
Virginia Woolf 9 116
Blatt goes on to determine if each author is uniformly efficient or does it vary from book to book. Bringing it home to this blog, the question is: Hemingway the most efficient or just the most efficient on average. It turns out that William Faulkner wrote three books with a lower adverb rate (As I Lay Dying, The Sound And The Fury, The Unvanquished), than Hemingway’s lowest count, To Have and Have Not.
Blatt also looks at the number of exclamation points per 100,000 words. Elmore Leonard once said, “You are allowed no more than 2 or 3 per 100,000 words.” He actually used 49 per 100,000, but that still made him “one of the stingiest.” Tom Wolfe used 929 per 100,000. But the “winner” is James Joyce’s 1105 per 100,000. Most clichés? James Patterson the highest; Jane Austin the lowest. In addition, Blatt looks at what words an author uses more often than the average. He set out the following requirements to judge this issue:
- The word must be used in at least half of the author’s books.
- It must be used at a rate of at least once per 100,000 words.
- It must be obscure in the sense that it is not commonly used.
- It is not a proper noun.
Based on those criteria, Ray Bradbury’s favorite words are: icebox, dammit, exhaled. Nabokov’s favorite word was, in fact, mauve.
So, some scientists have really buckled down and used their training to illuminate, and to have a bit of fun! Interesting data that’s not quite trivia.