The rhythm method
by Dirk E. Oldman
Some people really think that size counts. Businessdudes like the big, long words, just like they like their Beemers and their Rolexes and so on. Prim grammar bunheads seem to think short is best: if there is a shorter way to say something, that must be better. But it’s not really the size of the waves. It’s the motion of the ocean.
I’m not going to be like the Catholic Church and say that the rhythm method is the only way you can prevent unwanted conceptions. But good writing is like good sex. You don’t just bang away at random intervals. You have to know how your rhythm is working. That doesn’t mean there’s only one good way, though.
Let’s take a sentence – just the first thing that comes into my head:
I met two chicks today, and, I gotta tell you, they were hot.
This sentence doesn’t really have a groove. It has three hot points, each of which has multiple climaxes. I mean stresses. Check it out:
I met! two! chicks! today. And I got!ta tell! you. They! were hot!
The sentence doesn’t really roll forward. It stumbles or jumps. But you can use those big pauses in it for effect. Don’t let anyone tell you that I gotta tell you is completely useless here. Think of it as like beach volleyball (that sport where they have super-hot tall, lean babes double-teaming each other, and damn are they good at it):
- The ball comes in from the other team and is blocked by babe A and sent to babe B – in other words, our topic is introduced: I met two chicks today,
- Babe B doesn’t pound it back across right away, she sets it up by bouncing it high towards the babe A – in other words, the final impact is foreshadowed, but not yet made: and I gotta tell you,
- Then babe A nails it straight into the other team’s sand – in other words, the point, having been set up with anticipation, is made: they were hot.
That doesn’t mean that’s the only way you could say it. What do you want to do? What sort of kink is your sex partner, I mean your reader, into? Try this:
I met these two chicks, and, oh man, were they hot.
This doesn’t have all the same information – it doesn’t say it was today. But it has a real smooth, driving rhythm. This is no bumpy ride from some boasting dude at a bar. It’s like a song. It’s going somewhere. Check out the rhythm:
I met these two chicks and oh man were they hot.
It’s a jig. You’re dancing. And the dance doesn’t end as quickly as a point in beach volleyball.
Some people will tell you that I gotta tell you and oh man don’t add anything. This is obviously ████████. The one sets it up, and the other adds emphasis and rhythm. Try them without and see:
I met two chicks today, and they were hot.
That’s not even saying the same thing. Do you see how you’re expecting more? You want to say “How hot were they?” The spike line has been put in the setup position. Same with the other one without its oh man. And worse.
I met these two chicks, and they were hot.
You have to switch the were they to they were because you have no oh man. And the rhythm goes to hell:
I met these two chicks and they were hot.
You’re going to bang your head against something and hurt yourself if you do that.
The bunheads will probably tell you not to use the these either since they’re not right there. But you know, and I know that you know, and you know that I know that you know, that in a casual recounting like this it establishes them as specific characters, not just random bodies.
So what do you get if you strip it down? I don’t mean strip down the three chicks or yourself. Just take the sentence down to the minimums, like those its bikinis the beach volleyball babes wear.
I met two chicks. They were hot.
Is that bad? Nope, but it sure is different. It’s laconic, like an introverted computer nerd, or Steven Wright, or Ernest Hemingway without the ands. But most of the time if you say something like this it’s not coming out of nowhere. It’s something like an answer to a question: “Did you you have fun down at the beach?”
You can keep playing with this. Try a sentence that shifts the focus a bit and gives a more driving rhythm:
Today I met two really gorgeous chicks.
Sounds like a diary entry, doesn’t it? It’s the start of a narrative about the day. But it drives on with some energy. Change it a little and you get this:
I met two really gorgeous chicks today.
Here it’s the meeting that is the driving force for the narrative, not the day. But it still drives with rhythm. It could be the beginning of a song. Now take out really:
I met two gorgeous chicks today.
It’s less complete, isn’t it? Four beats instead of five. The other one ends on the downbeat of a new bar, while this one just finishes the bar. It’s like coitus interruptus. (Well, that is the rhythm method.) You want more.
Speaking of more, what about this:
I met two beautiful chicks today.
Obviously, gorgeous and beautiful have different tones to them. But aside from that, notice how this one skips. It’s not driving through like a dude in a Testarossa on a highway at night, it’s dancing around like Snoopy and Woodstock. Less testosterone, more butterflies.
Are you starting to get the idea? Watch your rhythm and what it’s doing. It’s not that a given rhythm is always better or worse. It’s what you want to do in that situation. Are you putting on the Diana Krall CD and pouring some Irish cream and going for a smooth, easy rhythm, or are you slapping on Apocalyptica and getting out the handcuffs and whip?
Blending and balancing the flavours
by Annie Wei-Yu Kan
I have no intention of disagreeing with Dirk about the value of rhythm in a sentence, although, had I been given that section to write, I would have managed to do so without larding it with sexism and perversion.
What he has not addressed, however, is the play of the tongue. Yes, I know. Shocking, isn’t it? How could he possibly leave something like that out? I’ve often asked myself that over the years.
What I mean here, thank you, is the way the sounds fit together. Not just the rhythm. The different vowels and consonants. How do they tickle your ear?
Here’s a nice sentence to start with:
I have had a lovely evening.
Look at the flow of the vowels: “I” “ah” “ah” “uh” “uh” “ee” “ee” “i” (I was going to use proper phonetic symbols, but if you knew what those meant I would need to be telling you all this in the first place). It starts open, narrows and moves up, and mostly goes in pairs.
Look at the flow of the consonants: “h” “vh” “d” “l” “vl” “vn” “ng.” More pairing, and with overlaps. And the “v” keeps showing up next to other consonants as a counterpoint or hand-off.
You get a quite different pattern – and rhythm – with something like this:
I had a nice time, thanks.
The vowels are “I” “ah” “uh” “I” “I” “ah” (in this example as in the last one, I’m obviously overlooking nasalization of vowels, since it’s an effect of the following consonant). This doesn’t build up, it comes full circle. It may seem more emphatic in statement, but this part of the form is actually less so.
The consonants are “h” “d” “n” “st” “mth” “nks.” It’s more of a mishmash, like a pot luck. The only thing that carries through at all is the voiceless fricatives in the last three pairings, and that’s just at one end.
Clearly I have had a lovely evening, which sounds like something one says after an elegantly hosted, well-put-together dinner party, is more like such a party, and I had a nice time, thanks, which sounds like a less sincere comment after an informal toss-together, is more like such a do, too.
Have you ever noticed this before? Maybe not consciously, but this is one of the things that make some sentences so nice to say and to hear. Pay attention more often.
Say, now, there’s another case to look at:
Pay attention more often.
The big question here is whether you happen to pronounce the t in often or not. Formally, you shouldn’t, but it’s showing up a lot now as a spelling pronunciation. It does make a little difference. The sentence has one hard stop near the start, in attention, but if you don’t say the t in often, it softens towards the end. That doesn’t mean the words are kinder, but it does have a certain turning away. Add the extra [t] and it’s crisper. It puts an extra little needle in there. The question of which pronunciation I had in mind when I wrote it above is left as an exercise to the reader.
Now, if you’re going to be paying attention to your sound patterns, you really do need to know what the sounds are that you’re patterning. There are different kinds of consonants and vowels, and it behooves you to know your ingredients so that you can put them together in ways that are pleasing and suitable. I’ll start with the consonants.
To start with, we have the stops. Like every other consonant, they vary depending on the position of your tongue and lips. Did you know that your tongue and lips have different positions? It’s amazing how many people seem quite clueless about this fact. Watch your lips as you say “bob” and “pop.” Now watch them as you say “book” and “put.” Do you see how with “book” and “put” it’s almost as though you’re blowing a kiss? Go look at yourself in a mirror as you do it and you’ll see. If you’re in public surrounded by strangers, be careful about mouthing these, as it may be taken the wrong way.
Pay attention to where your tongue is when you say “do” and “to”: you’re touching at the tip. Now try “cow”: is your tongue touching at the back and cupped in the middle? If you think it’s not, try again until you see that it is. Now try “cue.” Do you see that your tongue is pressing a bit more up and forward? Now try “kill”: the same or more so. With “goal” and “gill” you will get the same kind of contrast.
The difference between “b” and “p” is the same as the difference between “d” and “t” and between “g” and “k”: voice or no voice. But don’t be misled by the spelling: the t in “water” is not the same as the one in “still,” and the one in “till” actually has a puff of air after it. People keep thinking that what’s written on paper is the word, and that the letters they say are the letters just as written. No. What’s on paper is the recipe. What you say is the cooked and served result.
Do you cook? If so, do you follow the recipe exactly to the letter every time and never make variation? Well, if you do, you’re a dull cook, but you’re also not cooking like language cooks. There’s always a shift. And the cooking changes things. The page may say “fresh strawberries” but once you’ve cooked them they’re not fresh anymore, and you know that the flavour is different. You do know that, right?
And beyond that, the same ingredient will come out differently when cooked different ways with different things. So of course what we think of as “t” won’t taste the same in every word.
It also goes the other way: two different-looking recipes can produce the same result. Get someone to say “write right wright rite” over and over again and see if you can tell which word is which. You can’t. I’m telling you now that you can’t, but try it anyway so you see for yourself.
Returning to the consonant inventory: After the stops, we have fricatives, which sizzle and hiss in your mouth like a fricassee: “s”and “z” and “f” and “v.” And we have stops that combine with fricatives to make affricates: “ch” and “j.” (Other languages have more and different ones. Let’s stick to English for now. Master the basic cuisine before you try some fancy international feast.)
We also have nasals, “m” and “n” and “ng,” which have the tongue in the exact same positions as “p” and “t” and “k.” There is no “n” or “g” in “ng” (as in “doing” or “sing”; there is a “g” in “finger,” obviously). If you say “doin’” instead of “doing” you are not dropping a g. There is no g to drop when you say it. You’re just moving it forward. If you write it as doin’ you are of course dropping the g and adding an apostrophe. But that’s just the written form.
We also have liquids, “r” and “l,” and glides, “y” and “w.” I am very glad that it is I and not Dirk telling you about these, as he never could talk about liquids and glides without starting on on lubricants and other lubricious things.
Now, let me ask you, where is your tongue when you say “y” as in “you”? Are you sure? Say “cue you.” Say “E.U.” (which is the same as “ee you”). Are you getting it? It’s pressing forward. Now how about “w”? You can see that you round your lips, but where is your tongue? Wave the tip up and down in your mouth. It’s near the bottom by the lower teeth, see? Now move the back up and down. Try this: say “coocoocoocoo.” The back is right up near the top.
Honestly, it really is like cooking. If you want to get good at cooking, you have to play around in the kitchen, experiment with food, try different things. Did you see the movie Ratatouille? Be like that rat discovering flavour combinations. Think of your mouth as your kitchen: your palate is a cutting board, your tongue is a knife, your lips are rolling pins, the flap that opens or closes your nasal cavity is the choice between a frying pan and a slow cooker, your voice box is your fridge or oven, and your breath is your food that you are about to prepare.
But I’m talking about writing! Why would all of this matter? Simple. Even simpler than you are. Writing represents speech. What you read, you hear in your head. Some people even read it all out loud.
Did you notice just now how I said your breath is your food and how the parts of your mouth are kitchen implements? Extend this a bit further. Where the implements block or constrict the flow of air, where you make consonants – stops or fricatives or glides or whatnot – those are your serving dishes and your utensils. The vowels are the food they serve. You can’t eat the dishes by themselves, but without them the food runs all over the table.
So, now. Vowels. What are those?
You just said “a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y,” didn’t you? Well, you’re not right. Those are letters. Did you even read what I said above? Vowels are sounds. Those letters represent them. But the sounds represented by a in make and hat are different, while the sounds represented by a and e in hay and hey are the same. You really did know this already, didn’t you? So now tell me what that means.
It means you have to think about the sounds first, not the letters. It means those letters are not vowels. A is not a vowel. The sound after “p” in “pay” is a vowel, and the sound between “h” and “t” in “hat” is a different vowel, and the first sound in “above” is a different vowel again. The sound before “s” in “useful” is two sounds: it’s the same as in “you” – a glide and a vowel. A glide is a consonant. Do you say “an useless husband”? No, you say “a useless husband.” You know that “a” comes before consonants and “an” before vowels. Point proven.
So what are our vowels in English? We have a lot of them. Some of them are actually diphthongs, which means that the sound starts in one place and ends in another: it’s not just a position, it’s a movement. The vowels in these words are ones we use, and watch how as you say them, going from one to the next to the next, your tongue gradually makes a circle inside your mouth:
heat, hit, hate, het, hat, heart, hut, hot, court, coat, cook, coot, out, hew, coin, heigh
One more point. Say “hurtin’.” Try it again. Now tell me what vowels you’re saying.
I’m assuming you’re Canadian or American. If you’re from elsewhere your results may vary. But if you’re like most Canadians and Americans, it’s a trick question. There aren’t any vowels when you say it in casual speech. You start with “h” and then you go straight into a syllabic “r,” and then you stop the breath for a moment (this is called a glottal stop) and then say a syllabic “n”.
So, now, what are the consonants in, say, “curtain”? And what are the vowels?
If you’ve been paying attention you know that they’re exactly the same as for “hurtin’” except that the “h” is a “k.”
By now your brain may be “hurtin’” like a belly that has had too much really good food. So we will give you a rest. But never forget that what you write represents sounds, and those sounds have patterns, and they matter.