A Slip of the Tongue:

Using Malapropisms, Spoonerisms, and Hyperbole in Your Writing

By Jeanne Marie Leach

Happiness lies in the joy of achievement and the thrill of creative effort.

                                                                  —Franklin D. Roosevelt

Why is it that the simplest day-to-day speech mannerisms never find their way into our writing? Why do all characters tend to sound just like all other characters when they speak?

We are taught to give each of our characters something that differentiates each of them from the others. It’s easy to do that with their physical appearances, little habits and tics, but how do we do it in speech without them sounding the same as the characters from other book we’ve written or read?

Simple answer: give them some “normalcy” when they speak. You will create more believable characters if you use these familiar, yet forgotten slips of the tongue.

  • Malapropisms — This is when the author misuses words or phrases ridiculously, especially by confusing words that sound similar. The word or phrase means something different from the word the writer intended to use. The result is usually nonsensical, but entertaining.

Shakespeare used malapropisms in several of his works. Just a few examples of this are:

  • “Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons.” (i.e., apprehended, suspicious; Much Ado About Nothing, Act 3, Scene V)
  • “That is the very defect of the matter, sir.” (i.e., effect; The Merchant of Venice Act 2, Scene II)
  • “I will tell her, sir, that you do protest, which, as I take it, is a gentlemanlike offer.” (i.e., propose; Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene IV)

One thing to remember about malapropisms in fiction writing is that they don’t belong in the narrative portion of the story, but characters can get away with saying most anything. If a character uses clichés or malapropisms because that’s a part of who she or he is, then it works. Don’t try to have every character in your book speak this way every time they open their mouth. But one particular character who does this fairly regularly would definitely add depth to who they are.

  • Spoonerisms – These are more commonly known as a “slip of the tongue.” This is when someone gets the first letter of a couple words mixed around. They usually happen unintentionally, but an author can intentionally have one of their characters make a spoonerism that would be most appropriate for the moment. They are obviously used in humorous situations.

Examples:

  • “Three cheers for our queer old dean!” (dear old queen)
  • “Is it kisstomary to cuss the bride?” (customary to kiss)
  • “Is the bean dizzy?” (dean busy)

Spoonerisms only work in dialogue, and could show up when a character gets overly excited, such as a heroine meeting the hero for the first time and he’s drop-dead gorgeous. Or if someone is caught in a lie. These add an element of fun to your story, but should be used sparingly. After all, we’ve all had this sort of slipup before, so why not give it to our characters?

Hyperbole – A hyperbole is an obvious and intentional exaggeration. While it may be used to create a strong impression, it is definitely not to be taken literally. Some examples are:

  • The bag weighed a ton.
  • She walked toward the front of the class as if her feet were made of lead.
  • He felt the weight of the world on his shoulders.
  • The tabby cat’s lion-like growl startled her.

Hyperboles can be used in narration as well as dialogue, but isn’t seen as much in adult fiction as it used to because we are taught to SHOW and not TELL.

Teenagers regularly use hyperboles in their casual speech, so you’ll see these in the young adult genres more than anywhere else. They say things like, “My dad is going to kill me when he finds out I got a dent in the car.” This is an obvious overstatement.

Have you noticed, though, that adults use these exaggerations too? Of course you have. I exaggerate all the time to get my point across. Why not develop a character who has this tendency? Perhaps it gets her or him into trouble.

I hope you can see how adding a few average, everyday mannerisms to your character’s speech can create more unique and interesting people your readers will love.

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