“On Grammar and Plot” by Nicole Nelson

November 1, 2023

In “On Grammar and Plot,” Nicole Nelson applies her training as a linguist to show how creative verb choices can help shape the plot of a story, through the power of “coercion.” Nelson digs into three specific examples: Hamlet, Alice in Wonderland, and Amy Hempel’s “Tonight is a Favor to Holly.” Nelson writes, “A background in linguistics can be useful for writers—for poets and fiction writers alike.”


When I applied to graduate school in linguistics in the mid-1990s, a classmate who was also applying told me about her career goals. “I want to be a better poet,” she said. This surprised me because my plan had been to become a linguistics professor, which I did, eventually teaching at various universities. Over a decade ago, however, I too left academia to write fiction. My winding path revealed, if with much delay, my classmate’s insight. A background in linguistics can be useful for writers—for poets and fiction writers alike.

In poetry, readers expect syntax to intertwine with a poem’s meaning. My linguist gaze recognized verb choices leveraged to help shape and express a story’s plot in prose as well. Examples from the works of Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, and Amy Hempel illustrate how verb choice can convey the hierarchy of power among the characters. Shakespeare draws dramatic contrast in agency by inflating the action of verbs in one of Hamlet’s key speeches. Carroll’s careful misuse of a verb (specifically, murder) reveals the inner life of a character. Finally in Hempel’s work, the reader can track the evolution of the narrator’s agency through her verb choices, to the extent that growth of agency is the story. Violation of expectations about the way the verb normally functions forces a metaphorical reading of the verb in each case—a phenomenon discussed later with specific examples—called “coercion.”

“Agency” in literature refers to characters who are free to make choices and to have control of their lives. In linguistic terms, similarly, the subject of a sentence is usually the “agent”—in other words, the noun that performs the action of the verb. Leveraging of agency is generally important for the protagonist to establish because power creates tension. One classic example of a character who falters with seizing agency is Shakespeare’s famously indecisive Prince Hamlet.

In the play, the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears during the end of the first act to tell Hamlet that Hamlet’s uncle—King Claudius, who has since married Hamlet’s widowed mother, Queen Gertrude—murdered him. The ghost commands Hamlet to take revenge for his murder. Hamlet, however, hesitates. The following passage is from the end of Act II when Hamlet has decided to stage a performance of “Murder of Gonzago” for King Claudius and his court so that he can observe the King for signs of guilt during the murder scene. Hamlet muses that the player would do the following things in Hamlet’s situation (What would he do, /Had he the motive and the cue for passion/That I have?):

He would drown the stage with tears
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appal the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears.

In this passage, Shakespeare has manipulated agency to draw a dramatic contrast with Hamlet’s inaction. The verb drown typically requires an animate object to follow it. By making the stage the object of drown, the intensity of the desire to do harm to the perpetrator is magnified. A thing that is cleaved is usually inanimate—most commonly wood. Moreover, cleaving entails splitting into two parts. The metaphorical cleaving of an ear almost hurts to hear, as our mirror neurons for a moment imagine experiencing that violence.

The passage then shifts into a string of causative verbs, the kind that indicate that some person or thing makes something happen. Psychological dictum says that no one can make a person feel a certain way. Yet Hamlet claims the hypothetical actor portraying someone wronged in the way Hamlet has been could do just this. He would make mad the guilty, appal (in other words, make pale, horrify) the free, confound (cause confusion for) the ignorant and amaze (cause general astonishment). All this agency, with a strong dose of causation, gives life to a dramatic counterpoint to Hamlet’s inaction. He confronts the hypothetical path of action, the path he fails to choose. In their juxtaposition with Hamlet’s passivity, Shakespeare’s verb choices amplify the problem of Hamlet’s hesitation to act.

For a given verb, once its basic grammatical roles are assigned (subject and, if required, direct object), additional meaning requirements may be imposed on those positions. Take for example the verb to murder. It is transitive, requiring both a subject and an object. (An “*” before an example indicates ungrammaticality.)

[Claudius]subject murdered [the king] direct object.

*Claudius murdered. (Missing direct object)

*Murdered the king. (Missing subject)

The first sentence illustrates that neither the subject nor the direct object is optional. However, not just any noun phrase will do. (“#” indicates semantic deviance.):

#The dagger murdered the king.

#Claudius murdered the quill.

The verb “murder” requires a cognizant subject who kills the human direct object with intent.[1] However, here is the statement of the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland:

“Well, I’d hardly finished the first verse,” said the Hatter, “when the Queen jumped up and bawled out, ‘He’s murdering the time! Off with his head!’” 

The Red Queen goes over the top with her assertion of “murder.” The leap from the pity of simply “wasting” time to murdering it implies criminal intent of the Mad Hatter in an innocuous situation.

Sentences with semantically deviant implementation of the verb—ones where the related noun role disobey requirements of the verb, for example—are only possible with context that establishes metaphorical meaning. When a mismatch between a verb and a subject or object triggers reinterpretation of the meaning of those elements, that process is referred to as “coercion.” It is a technical term, but one I find pleasingly apt—the idea that an author “coerces” a verb to express more fully a dynamic of the story. Coercion allows us to understand Carroll’s sentence despite the non-human nature of the object of “murder,” time, as a metaphorical murdering. Additionally, the absurd suggestion that the Hatter premeditatively and unlawfully killed time, something he does not have agency over, shows the unreasonableness of the Red Queen’s accusations, revealing her irrational character.

Amy Hempel’s story “Tonight is a Favor to Holly” investigates its characters’ relative power with its choices of verbs. Persistent manipulation of agency drives the plot: Although the protagonist largely cedes control of her life to her friend and roommate Holly for the bulk of the story, she embraces her active role in a life-changing decision.

Coercion—misfit verb/noun pairings that force a meaning shift like with Carroll’s “murdering” of time—features prominently in this story to deploy agency in surprising ways. Throughout, Hempel exploits select verbs to add dimension to the protagonist’s arc of her relationship with power and taking responsibility for choices.

The narrator lives by the beach in an apartment that she and her friend Holly rent while their house, which was nearly destroyed by a mudslide, is repaired. She dislikes the beach community but appears to allow the decisions and wills of others to determine her fate.

Relative to her friend Holly, the unnamed narrator exhibits much less agency. This asymmetry is mirrored in the relationship between two squatters that the narrator observes on her block. One, Suzy, sacrifices her own agency and inflates that of her partner Howard. At the end of the story, however, agency colors the narrator’s world. And that is when we learn that the narrator’s predicament of living with Holly by the beach in a community that she doesn’t like, her having been forced from their old home due to a mudslide—it had all been avoidable, but the narrator had in fact made a mindful choice all along to call the California beach town home.

An early example of deficient agency concerns the description of the women’s angled beds in the temporary apartment. The intransitive verb “sleep” takes the direct object “you”: “My own [bed] goes north to south; unless I’m mistaken, east to west is how they sleep you in your grave.” The transitive use of “sleep” here, in a sense that refers to death, is jarring, muddling control.

“Sleep” is a change-of-state verb. Normally, sleep is intransitive: you sleep, where “you” is the subject. Putting “you” in the direct object position, however, casts the subject “they” as the agent. This rearrangement forces the direct object “you” into the role of the person undergoing the action in “they sleep you”—rather than the one performing it. The transitive use of “sleep” here introduces novel causation as with the Hamlet example; in this case, they cause you to sleep. Analogy creates a sense of causation—analogy to causative verbs such as: allow, help, require. This causative use yields a relinquishment of agency by the sleeper and reveals lack of a sense of control by the narrator.

In the next example, while arguing with fellow squatter Howard (aka “Hard”), Suzy yells, “Hard! Look out! You wanna give someone an accident?” The word “accident” contributes to the delegation of power. By definition, an accident is both unexpected and, crucially, unintentional. On the one hand, we know what Suzy means to say: Be careful, or you will cause someone to have an accident. But this change of wording brings insight to the characters. The verb “give” requires intention on the part of the giver. Here, she assigns Howard more agency than is possible; someone can’t give someone else an accident.

Two additional examples involving the side character of Suzy subvert the canonical assignment of agency within a verb phrase. She is described: “Suzy has massive sunburned arms and wide hips that jerk unevenly when she walks.” The agent, the performer of the jerking (Suzy) is removed, leaving the hips to jerk themselves in a way that the reader is left feeling a gap in agency. The narrator also says of Suzy: “The story is he [Howard] found her at the harbor.” Here, “found” is used in the sense of finding a discarded item that is of use. It is not clear at all that Suzy ever considered herself “lost,” so to say that he “found” her once again robs her of agency. In addition to the example with “giving” an accident above, all these examples establish Suzy as someone who not only holds little agency, but who assigns excessive control to her adversary.

Examples with the protagonist show a similar dearth of agency—except when she speaks of “we,” meaning her and Holly, as in, “Maybe we drain a half a tank cruising Holly’s territory.” This infusion of agency is the opposite of what occurred with sleep above. Instead of relinquishing agency, the protagonist seizes it—with Holly’s help. Imposing an agent-subject (we) demotes a change-of-state verb’s erstwhile agent (a half a tank) to object. Usually, we would think of a tank growing empty as the engine runs, but here the act of emptying is attributed to the pair of women.[2]

A similar example is: “If things are quiet down the block, if the air is thick and still, we float ourselves in the surf.” In English (unlike in Romance languages), “to float” is not reflexive. We can float things, or things/people can float, but we don’t float ourselves—unless the verb and its arguments are coerced to yield a jolt of agency and power.

In this last example of swaying agency in this story, one of the final paragraphs contains a gush of agency in a flashback that gives us a new perspective about the narrator’s plight living in Southern California:

[The moving van] spilled my whole life down a mud ravine, where for two weeks rain kept a crew from hauling it out. Mold embroidered the tablecloths, and newts danced in my shoes.

The use of transitive “spill” is unconventional in that its subject is inanimate, and thus presumably without agency: a moving van. The moving van possesses unexpected agency as the subject of “spills,” which, when used transitively, requires that the subject causes the spilling—causation for which an inanimate moving van is incapable of being responsible.

With the verb “embroidered,” the role played by the noun “mold” is ambiguous, as the clause “mold embroidered the tablecloths” could mean that the mold performed the embroidering (mold is the agent), or it could be construed as the design embroidered on the tablecloths (by an unspecified agent). In my reading, it is, intriguingly, both—mold embroidered the tablecloths with mold.

Lastly, saying of the newt that it “danced” anthropomorphizes it. If it “danced,” the newt used its own movements in a way that it intended as artful, employing agency. This image completes the trinity of surprising examples of agency in this paragraph, a paragraph that contains an agency explosion, projected by the protagonist, who recalls the key period when she assumed control of her choices and her actions.

The tampering with power throughout the story is subtle, and it all serves to dramatize the shift at the end. In the brief final section, we learn that—counter to our take on the protagonist in the story as presented until that point—she took charge in an important situation. She had, two years earlier, made the choice to move back to the beach after a regretted decision to move east. During the move returning her to the coast, all her things were ruined by mud and by weeks of rain. But she refused to take the crash and destruction as a sign that she should not have come back: “I say an omen that big can be ignored.” This act of ignoring what she calls an “omen” exhibits a strong sense of will and decisiveness, which serves as a turn. The dialing up and down of agency drive the reader’s journey through the arc of the story.

As explored through these examples from Shakespeare, Carroll, and Hempel, the lens of linguistics can help us understand how certain verbs allow more insight to power dynamics than others, how different categories of verbs carry different subconscious expectations, and how agency is leveraged by the roles cast by the verb. In addition, these examples show how when a writer flouts requirements of a verb regarding things like an animate subject or intransitivity, a shift into the metaphorical happens. By examining various cases of coercion and seeing how it works within verb phrases, readers can start to recognize the technique and then prose writers can consciously experiment with the coercion of verbs in their work, especially to enhance characterization and to reinforce plot.


[1] For simplicity, I am conflating the syntactic category “subject”” with the semantic category “agent,” as well as “direct object” with “theme,” because the distinctions are not relevant here.

[2] The technical name for the class of verbs that show this type of alternation (The tank drained/We drained the tank) is “ergative.”

Nicole Nelson is a writer and linguist living in Southern California. Her creative work has appeared in
HAD, Fiction Writers Review, Literary Mama, and elsewhere. For several years, she co-hosted “Writers on Writing” on KUCI-FM in Irvine. She holds an MFA from Bennington Writing Seminars and a PhD in linguistics from Rutgers. nicolenelsonwrites.com.


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