Saturday 18 December 2010

He Said, She Said

I have become obsessed with a new little toy of Google's. Essentially you can put in phrases, a period (e.g. 1800-2000) and a corpus (e.g. fiction in English) and see how frequently the phrase appears and how the frequency it changes over time. For example, you can put in coffee and tea and you get this (click to enlarge):

Bingo! A cultural history of the popularity of tea against coffee. Since about 1970 the black beans have been outinfusuing the golden leaves.

Anyway, I could probably write posts on this new toy for a year, but for the moment I shall simply give you these two graphs on the way people speak in novels, or more precisely: how novelists write dialogue. I put in he exclaimed, he cried, he screamed, he whispered, he shouted and got:

And then I did the same words but with she instead of he.

Nobody exclaims any more. Women didn't start to scream or shout until 1920, but men had been shouting, at least, all through the Victorian period. 'Nobody cries any more,' cried Mrs Bennett gaily. And why, dear reader, why the sudden, recent rise in whispering. What are we moderns trying to hide?

Now go and read this little gem from How To Write Badly Well.


  1. I bet if you input 'he said /she said' the graph would go off the map!

  2. Fascinating. I'll stick to my tea, thank you.

  3. We can blame Elmore Leonard for the modern dearth of wailings, whisperings and whimperings.