A Writer’s Guide to Yes and No

So, thinking about how to write about seventh-century Anglo-Saxons raises questions about two simple words you would think no writer would need advice on: yes and no. But if you are writing out of your own time and place, you do need to be careful about what you do with these words. A few thoughts:

Modern English uses yes and no more often, I think, than did our ancestors in the past, and more so than speakers of other languages. In today’s global village, where English is used so heavily as a second language, it seems this trait of English is leaking into other languages. I think modern speakers of Spanish, say, use and no more often than they used to.

Some languages get by perfectly well with no words at all that correspond to our yes and no. Finnish, for instance.  Classical Latin did not have words for yes and no. These languages get by just by repeating the verb. For instance:

Has he left?
He has left.
He has not left.

So if you are writing a story set in ancient Rome, you can help convey the feel of being in a different culture at a different time by not using yes or no to answer questions. And, as I say, if your story is set in a foreign country with a different language, or especially in the past, you can help convey that by omitting yes and no, or at least minimizing the use of them.

In my case, with The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, I have all but removed yes and no from the manuscript. I do global searches from time to time to sift out cases when I used them without thinking, which I sometimes do. But the Anglo-Saxon language did have words for yes and no, so it needn’t be a hard and fast rule. There are times when you really want to use yes or no because the character is being emphatic, and that’s all right. Although they said yes and no less often back then, the times when they did use them, it was to be emphatic.

But the other tricky thing is that the Anglo-Saxons actually had four words: yes, no, aye, and nay. So if you’re writing in old or middle English, you really need to know how to use all four. Wikipedia has an article on yes and no that can help you. Basically, if the question is affirmative, you use aye and nay. If the question is negative, you use yes and no. For instance:

Has he left yet?
Aye, he has left.
Nay, he has not left.

Hasn’t he left yet? (Or maybe, Has he not left yet? has a better period feel.)
Yes, he has left.
No, he has not left yet.

So there you have it. I’ll bet hat’s a lot more words of explanation on how to use yes and no than you ever thought would be necessary.

What do you think? Have I got it right?

(Lots of good work on the project. I’m up to about 110,000 words.)

(Cross-posted at The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.)

More on Words

I’ve been thinking more about word choice, and I’ve decided I haven’t beaten this dead horse enough, so let me say some more.

As I’ve said, one of the glories of the English language is that there are often three (or more) different ways to say something, Anglo-Saxon, French, and Greco-Latin. Each one has its own distinct color. Or flavor, if you like.

This is something that all writers need to pay attention to in their own work, even if they are not writing epic fantasy novels set in Dark Age England. Because the colors are going to work for you (or against you), so you need to understand them.

Greco-Latin verbiage is technical, bureaucratic, and polysyllabic. This language can communicate with great precision, which is why scientists and academics and the educated frequently employ it. The difficulty inherent in using this language is that it can feel abstract and colorless. And though it is precise language, its very technicality facilitates confusion. Audiences can be misdirected by this language, and its very sense of sophistication can be used to induce the credulous to conclude that important ideas have been expressed, when in fact the language is basically empty of content.

French words lend themselves to express beauty, artistry, vision. It is the language of grace and balance, a ballet of letters that can touch all the pleasures and mysteries of experience. French words lend themselves to poetry. They are the music of the soul.

Anglo-Saxon speech is short, punchy, and earthy. The words are crisp. They show meaning without bloat. They are words of feeling. Words of love and hate. Words of life and death. Blunt, hard words that make sharp thoughts and quick deeds.

Did you see what I did there? Ha, ha, yes. I am so clever. I did the thing I was talking about while I was talking about it. But I think even in these hastily constructed and self-conscious sentences, you can see what I’m driving at. Note too that I constructed more complex sentences to go with the more complex language, and simple sentences that go with the simple words. The longer sentences are sentences of mood and contemplation. The short, punchy sentences are sentences of action and passion.

(I am now 107,000 words into this project. I am no longer sure whether I have two long books or three short ones. Who knows? Maybe three long ones by the time I’m done. I’ve decided to just go ahead and write the damn first draft already, and worry about structure later.)

(Cross-posted at The Sorcerer’s Apprentice)