Gendered language and pronoun usage (ways to do it properly, and ways to do it wrong)

Around the 1960s and 70s, feminists undertook a project of feminist language reform, uncovering and correcting gendered language. Among the problems they tackled was the generic use of “he”.

Insisting that women might sometimes be the referents of generic pronouns, feminists met with the resistance of a stubborn vanguard of patriarchal language puritans, who had in their defense a long-established linguistic tradition of privileging the male perspective. But feminists won the day, eventually convincing writers not to exclude half the population from their intended readership. The only question now was how to write sentences, since everyone had learned to phrase sentences with the generic “he”.

There were four broad solutions to this problem.

  1. Alternate between “he” and “she”. This recognizes that it is exclusionary to use the masculine pronoun and, in an egalitarian move, seeks to apportion that exclusion in equal measure to men and women, distributed more or less arbitrarily throughout their work. This strategy can be called gendered pronoun alternation.
  2. Replace “he” with the compound phrase “he or she”. This replaces the exclusionary masculine pronoun with a clunky, gender-ambiguous reference composed of two gendered pronouns. This strategy can be called gendered pronoun compounding.
  3. Use the singular “they”. This recognizes that the non-gendered “they” is inclusive. It also speeds up comprehension time, relative to the generic “he”. However, it has the downside of being grating to people who are uncomfortable using “they” in the singular. This strategy can be called gendered pronoun neutrality.
  4. Reword sentences so they don’t use a generic “he”. This leads to stronger sentences in general, but requires skill to consistently execute, and careful attention paid to phrasing. This strategy can be called gendered pronoun nullification.

Ever since feminists convinced the world that women deserve equal treatment with respect to pronoun reference, there has been disagreement about how to handle that equal treatment.

Each strategy has its downsides. Compounding -“he or she”-  is cumbersome and awkward. Alternating is distracting and arbitrary. Neutrality -the singular “they”- can be grating to people who aren’t yet used to it. And the null strategy -avoiding generic pronoun use- requires attention paid to phrasing, making it harder for the speaker or writer.

Even today, all these different strategies are used by different speakers. The phrase “he or she” spiked in popularity throughout the 70s, peaking around 1980, just as we would expect from the feminist language reform movement. Gender pronoun compounding has been more-or-less consistent since then.

he or she usage.jpg

It shouldn’t be.

Not only is the phrase “he or she” clunky and awkward, it’s exclusionary, in precisely the same way that usage of the masculine “he” is. So is gender pronoun alternation. These strategies both exclude gender non-binary individuals. They both presume gender binarity.

Ironically, the compounding and alternating strategies, though a response to egalitarian concerns, are arguably less progressive than the antiquated “he” usage, since, while the older usage at least has the (admittedly flimsy) pretense of using “he” as a neutral pronoun, the “he or she” strategies posture as inclusive, and thereby succeed in being that much more exclusionary to gender non-binary people.

(And why “he or she” rather than “she or he”?)

We might fix either strategy by including “they” among the terms that are compounded or alternating. But once you open the door for “he or she or they” you recognize the validity of the singular “they”, so you might as well just use that. Ditto for alternating.

The only sensible strategies are gender neutrality and gender nullification. No more of this arbitrarily alternating between “he” and “she”, and no more of the clunky and exclusionary “he or she” compounds. Even without considering the exclusionary effects of these strategies, they were the worst of the four, anyways. Gender neutrality and gender nullification lead to cleaner, more elegant sentences.

It might be helpful to demonstrate how to execute gender pronoun nullification. Virginia Tufte, in Syntax as Style (which you should consider buying), provides this example of generic pronoun use (before fixing it):

When a small child encounters an angry dog, she instinctively knows that bared fangs signal great danger even without any previous learning. – Cooper and Reiman, “About Face 2.0: The Essentials of Interaction Design”

Tufte fixes the sentence this way:

A small child encountering an angry dog instinctively knows, even without any previous learning, that bared fangs signal great danger.

Tufte’s version handles the gendered pronoun issue better by phrasing to avoid generic pronoun usage. This makes it genuinely inclusive. Even without considering the gender issue, Tufte’s version is a better sentence -smoother to read and more economical, two words shorter than the original.

But writing this way requires deliberate attention paid to phrasing. It’s worth it, I think, since you end up with better sentences. But it makes the writer’s job slightly more difficult. For those writers who aren’t up to the task, the gender neutral “they” is also an option.

I would like to see the usage of “he or she” dropping. Besides being clunky and inelegant, it’s also exclusionary. It fails at achieving the only thing that it was meant to achieve. So if you see or hear someone using it, please kindly explain what’s wrong with it, or direct them to this article.



Starboy, by The Weeknd

“Starboy” is a song by musical artist The Weeknd, and featuring Daft Punk. The genre, I guess, is R&B.

I would like to consider the lyrics as poetry.

I didn’t say R&B is poetry. That’s a boring claim, which says less about R&B or poetry than it does about one’s own conception of the boundaries of poetry. It also subtly implies that the art form’s value depends to some degree on whether we can convince the right authorities that it counts as “Poetry”. That’s a game of definitions to disguise a claim of aesthetics.

But the phrase ‘R&B as poetry’ says something different. It says that R&B lyrics can be viewed with the same critical eye that we take to poetry; That if we treat the lyrics with the same care and attention with which we treat poetry, they will give something back.

If there are stodgy conservatives who reject the claim that R&B lyrics could be considered poetry, for whatever aesthetic reason, then Starboy, by The Weeknd, might be the perfect case study for them. It is meant to have a superficial exterior that affirms prejudices and stereotypes of the lives of celebrity artists.

Here’s the first verse, eight lines.

I’m tryna put you in the worst mood, ah
P1 cleaner than your church shoes, ah
Milli point two just to hurt you, ah
All red Lamb’ just to tease you, ah
None of these toys on lease too, ah
Made your whole year in a week too, yah
Main bitch out your league too, ah
Side bitch out of your league too, ah

We might start by noticing the rhymes. Ignoring the obvious “ah”, we’ve got rhymes on the end of every line, with mood/shoes/you/too. But there’s also the slant rhymes on worst/church/hurt and tease/lease/week/league. (As it turns out, the rhyme on church/hurt might be the most significant, though we’ll have to wait to see why).

But let’s think about the content. It looks very much like shallow braggadocio. He is posturing. He brags about his sports cars (his P1 McLaren and his red Lamborghini), his stockpile of money, his income, and his multiple sexual partners (who he doesn’t seem to respect a great deal).

Allow me to suggest there is a deeper meaning here. Yes, I am serious. We should look more closely, in particular, at the second line.

P1 cleaner than your church shoes, ah

This is an odd comparison to make. He hasn’t chosen to focus on the cost of the car, its performance, its speed or its power, but its cleanliness. And of all things, he has compared it to church shoes. Cleanliness connotes devotion, and is also associated with moral purity. To make this comparison is not just say that his car is clean, but to imply that the other person’s shoes are at least a little bit dirty -that their church shoes have been neglected. The subtext is admonition for a failure of religious devotion.

We might also wonder: who is this person whose church shoes are being criticised? Who is the Weeknd talking to in this way? It is a strange thing to pick on someone’s church shoes. Not everyone goes to church. The speaker must know this person enough to know that they will be cut by a criticism of their religious devotion. Indeed, the speaker does know this person very well. Because he’s talking about himself. This is a song about internal conflict. It is about someone suffering under the surface of their celebrity, because they have sacrificed their religious identity for fame.

Not convinced? Let’s move to the pre-chorus.

House so empty, need a centerpiece
20 racks a table cut from ebony
Cut that ivory into skinny pieces
Then she clean it with her face man I love my baby
You talking money, need a hearing aid
You talking bout me, I don’t see the shade
Switch up my style, I take any lane
I switch up my cup, I kill any pain

First of all, I love how well this works on both levels. This section, too, can be read straightforwardly as superficial bragging. It uses the language of drugs and wealth to construct a perfect veneer of shallowness. Unless we look closer, we could easily miss it -that’s actually the point. But the moment we exert any kind of critical pressure, it falls away.

House so empty, need a centerpiece

Okay, so he has a big house. But what an odd way to brag about it. One doesn’t usually brag about a house by calling it empty, or saying that you need a centerpiece. That line drives at the essence of the song. It is about his own emptiness, his own need. And there is the question of whether “centerpiece” was used for its homophonic double meaning, “center peace”.

You talking money, need a hearing aid
You talking bout me, I don’t see the shade

One part of his conscience struggles with the other. The “starboy” is responding to accusations that he has sacrificed his religious identity for fame. He can’t refute that charge, but instead makes an admission: he is blind and deaf to the concerns of his religious self.

The following two lines make this more clear.

Switch up my style, I take any lane
I switch up my cup, I kill any pain

Here, the “starboy” aspect of his self says he is willing to do whatever it takes to be famous. To “take any lane”. Even though he knows, ultimately, that it won’t make him happy. He ends the pre-chorus by admitting, in no uncertain terms, that he is in pain.

We get to the chorus, when his religious-self responds to the starboy-self.

Look what you’ve done
I’m a motherfuckin’ starboy

He is, of course, blaming himself. The tone is most clearly accusatory, not congratulatory. It is derisive. to be a “motherfuckin’ starboy” is not presented as commendable. It is contemptible.

By repeating the title in the chorus here, it is invested with the energy of the song, making it stand as a symbol for the artist’s conflicted self. The “starboy” is a celebrity with all the superficial trappings of fame, but is suffering from spiritual emptiness. This theme is enacted perfectly by the form -superficial on the surface, but hiding something else below. The shallow, materialistic bragging hides his spiritual emptiness and his pain.

Give the song a listen, with this interpretation in mind.

Final Words

Thanks for reading. I hope you liked this post and found it interesting. I update this site regularly (once a week), so check back soon. Also, you should check out the other posts. There are articles on craft, and more poetry analysis.


Use the Active Voice (Unless Passive is Better)

“Use the active voice.”

You’ve probably heard this advice before. It’s number 14 in Strunk and White’s Elements of Style -one of their “Elementary Principles of Composition”- and a commonly repeated bit of writing wisdom.

However, the active voice is not always preferable. The rule “use the active voice” doesn’t help us determine when it should be used, and slavish obedience to this rule will lead to ineffective usage. What we really need isn’t a rule to follow, but an understanding of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the active and passive voice.

In this post, I want to look more closely at active and passive voice,with the goal of better understanding why you might want to use one instead of the other.

Learning Goals

Understand the difference between active and passive voice; identify active or passive voice; translate between active and passive voice; recognize strengths and weaknesses of active versus passive voice; choose active or passive voice based on the situation.

Active and Passive Voice

Active and passive voice is not a question of verb tense. Some people mistakenly believe that passive voice means to speak about things that have passed. But:

The dog eats the food


The dog ate the food


The dog was eating the food

are all in the active voice. Verb tense has nothing to do with it.

Active voice is determined by whether the subject of the sentence -in this case the dog- is performing the action. The dog is the subject, and the dog is performing the action of eating in all the above cases, so all are in the active voice.


The food was eaten by the dog

is the passive voice. In this case, the food is the subject of the sentence, and the food is being acted on by the verb. The dog is the one doing the action, even though the food is the subject of the sentence. The food is passive. So the subject of the sentence is passive. So this sentence is in the passive voice.

You can often identify the passive voice from the presence of the word “by”.

Exercise: identifying passive and active voice

Which of the following are passive voice and which are active voice:

  1. The cats were fighting in the alley.

  2. Susie was bitten by the chihuahua.

  3. Her childhood home, her dolls, her drawings, were all destroyed by the blaze.

  4. It was found by Herbert et al that “take the stairs” work-initiatives had no measurable impact on the health of non-sedentary employees.

  5. He was a man of simple tastes.

  6. On the island, right where the map had said -twenty paces from the big rock- the treasure had been found, a few feet below the sand.

  7. The population had been decimated.

Exercise: translating active to passive, and assessing relative strengths and weaknesses of active and passive.

  1. For each of the 7 sentences above, try to translate the passive constructions to active constructions, and vice-versa.

  2. Were there any issues in translating from passive to active voice? What caused the problem?
  3. For each of the translations you made, which version sounds better? Why?

Sometimes use passive voice?

Strunk and White advocate for use of the active voice, saying it “makes for more forcible writing”, “is usually more direct and vigorous”, and that the passive voice can be “less direct, less bold, and less concise”.

They do note, however, that passive voice is “frequently convenient and sometimes necessary”. For this point, they give a pair of examples:

The dramatists of the Restoration are little esteemed today.


Modern readers have little esteem for the dramatists of the Restoration.

The preferred voice in this case is not based on which is more “forcible” or “bold” or “concise” but rather on the topic of the paragraph. As Strunk and White note, the former would be chosen in a paragraph about the dramatists, and the latter would be chosen for a paragraph about the tastes of modern readers.

Strunk and White don’t discuss the conditions under which passive voice would be preferable. They conclude only by saying that getting into the habit of writing in the active voice “makes for forcible writing”. That may well be so. But the advantages offered by “forcible” writing could sometimes be outweighed by whatever advantages are offered by the passive voice -if only we knew what they were!

The advantage of Strunk and White -in this case, and in most of the others- is that the brevity and lack of nuance makes the advice easy to follow. Professors and teachers can assign Elements of Style to their students and expect them to actually read and follow it. Their pithy advice will make a bad writer passable, but it won’t make a passable writer good. If we really care about our writing, what we need is not an oversimplified set of rules (“use the active voice”) but to understand the strengths and weaknesses of various grammatical structures. Active voice and passive voice are tools suited for different applications, and we need to know how to use both of them.

Fortunately, there is a guide for this. It’s from a book that is better than Elements of Style in every respect except simplicity: “Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style”, by Virgina Tufte. Rather than just listing rules to follow, Tufte gives examples of good sentences and examines how they work. Where Strunk and White have a one page exhortation to use the active voice, Tufte devotes eleven pages to effective usage of the passive voice.

Strengths of passive voice

Since the end of a sentence naturally feels more stressed, the passive voice can be used to add emphasis to a particular word or words by shifting them into the final position:

I was tormented by strange hallucinations.

-Validimir Nabokov, Nabokov’s Congeries

Here, the passive voice is being used to shift the primary stress to where the author wants it, on the hallucinations.

A similar example comes from E.B. White, notwithstanding his injunction against passive construction:

Her body, if concealed at all, is concealed by a water lily, a frond, a bit of moss, or by a sarong – which is a simple garment carrying the implicit promise that it will not long stay in place.

-E.B. White, The Second Tree from the Corner

The passive voice can be used whenever the writer wants to avoid mention of agency. So:

My toddler broke your phone.

might become

Your phone was broken.

Generally, the passive voice can be used anytime the writer wants to omit an agent, whether we don’t want indicate the agent, or because we don’t know, or because we don’t want the reader’s focus taken by the agent. For example:

The monument was destroyed.

We could say this if we didn’t know how it was destroyed, whether it was it a person, or people, or a natural event. But we might also say such a thing if it didn’t matter how it was destroyed.

The passive voice can be used to impart a feeling of divine command or natural law. Since the agent is omitted, these sentences can give a sense that it is simply describing the way things are:

There are rules and there are laws; they are well made. It is forbidden to cross the great river and look upon the place of the Gods -this is most strictly forbidden… These things are forbidden -they have been forbidden since the beginning of time.

-Stephen Vincent Benét, By the Water of Babylon

Sometimes we don’t want the subject to feel active. Maybe we want them to feel weak, or helpless, or the victim of circumstances. In general, we may want to express their passivity. This is done with passive constructions:

She was pulled by the tide.


They sailed and trailed and flew and raced and crawled and walked and were carried, finally, home.

-John Knowles, Indian Summer

Or, the example from Nabokov:

I was tormented by strange hallucinations.

-Validimir Nabokov, Nabokov’s Congeries

More Examples

If I keep going through all the examples of Tufte, I’d risk just repeating everything she has to say on the matter. Instead, if you find that kind of discussion useful or interesting, I’d recommend just getting her book.

Practice Exercises

In these exercises we’ll practice making active constructions into passive constructions, in situations where it might be useful. The goal is to develop a sense of some other considerations a writer might make when deciding on a passive or active construction.

  1. Make the injunction more powerful by omitting the agent with a passive construction (substantial rewording may be required):

    • “Billy said we’re not supposed to walk on the grass.”

  1. Shift the subject to the terminal position of the sentence with a passive construction:

    • “Failing educational institutions and lack of employment opportunity have increased homelessness, drug addiction, and gang activity.”

  1. Make Billy into the passive subject of the rescue, by using a passive construction:

    • “The firefighters carried Billy from the apartment.”

Additional Questions

  1. Were the translated versions better? Why or why not?
  2. Pick one of the advantages of passive voice. Come up with a pair of example sentences to demonstrate this strength.


Passive voice and active voice are tools that are suited for different situations. A writer should know how to use both of them effectively. This requires practice with both, and reflecting on the effects each form has on the reader.

Active voice is generally more concise and more forceful. Passive voice has a number of uses: it is sometimes clearer; it is sometimes necessary, given the intended subject of the sentence; it can be used to shift the stress of the sentence; it can be used to omit the agent; it can complement the passivity of the subject; it can create rhetorical force.

There are other applications of the passive voice -and examples of usage- in Virginia Tufte’s book, “Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style”.

Description: Sensory Impressions

We want our scenes to be immersive and believable. But sometimes description feels flat and lifeless. A common weakness is not using sensory impressions effectively. Often, there is too much focus on the visual. We don’t just see the world -we experience it through smells, sounds, temperature, and many other senses (not just five). Writing should capture these other kinds of experiences.

It’s not just about using multiple senses -it’s also about choosing the right details to construct an immersive and psychologically convincing sensory experience.

In order to make our writing more immersive and believable, we should practice engaging multiple sensory modalities, and learn how we can effectively use various sensory details to construct vivid and immersive scenes.

This post is about developing the ability to use sense impressions and details effectively. There will be a few concepts discussed, and lots of exercises for practice.

Learning Goals

Understand the meaning and importance of sensory density; Develop range across sensory modalities, and awareness of options for increasing sensory density; Practice writing with high sensory density; Understand how distancing language reduces immersion; Practice avoiding distancing language; Understand salient details and telling details; practice using salient details and telling details.

Sensory Density

Sensory Density is the degree of compactness of different sensory modalities. A passage that only has visual sense impressions has low sensory density. A passage that engages multiple sensory modalities has high sensory density.

I could describe a walk through part of the city by showing the reader discarded shoes hanging from power-lines, old payphones caked with grime, a boarded up house on the corner, potholes. You’re beginning to see what kind of a place this is. But it’s not immersive description -not as immersive as it could have been if I also mentioned urine fumes from the sidewalk, the hacking coughs of old men, clouds of cigarette smoke -things that impinge on different senses.

A common rule of thumb is to engage three different senses to make a scene feel real.

The following lines of poetry have a very high sensory density:

All through the night the dead

crunch pieces of ice from the moon. (Yannis Ritsos)

This line of surreal poetry, though not aiming to be believable, is vivid and evocative. Part of its strength comes from the density of sensory impressions. We have sight, sound, taste, temperature, passage of time, all engaged in the space of one sentence. It conveys a creepy sense of weary, dissatisfied restlessness, and maybe dread or existential angst. I don’t know what it looks like for the dead to crunch pieces of ice from the moon -and I’m not sure you could find pieces of moon-ice big enough to crunch, or how the dead might get those pieces, or how they would crunch them- but the surreal line comes to life because of the evocative sensory imagery.

Here is another example of high sensory density.

“The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.” (The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde)

We can say that a passage conveys a sense impression to the extent that the reader is able to answer questions about the passage related to that sense. For the passage from The Picture of Dorian Gray, we could test what was conveyed by asking such questions:

  • Could you say what temperature the wind was?

  • How frequently it was blowing?

  • The sound it made?

  • The smell(s)?

  • What the studio looked like inside?

  • What it looked like outside, through the open door?

The passage manages to paint a vivid picture across several senses (and all of that from one sentence that is, grammatically, just about the smell). That’s sensory density.

Exercise – Sense Modalities

There’s way more than five senses. The point of this exercise is practicing with senses we might not normally consider, in order to expand our range with different sensory experiences. Some of these exercises will require you to really flex your descriptive and creative muscles.

There’s a table below with a series of different senses listed in the left hand column. For each one, your job is to come up with a description that uses that sense (write out a chart like this on a sheet of paper). Use your imagination to come up with any scene, setting, action, or object you want to describe. Or use any of the following prompts: piece of fruit, visiting a planet, magic spell, meeting an alien, fist fight, explosion, losing consciousness, stepping through a portal, skiing, falling asleep on a couch.

For example, in the “sight” row, you might choose to describe an apple using sight. For the “temperature” row, you might describe a cup of coffee. Use only one sentence per description. The purpose of this exercise is just to expand awareness of available sensory modalities, and to practice making descriptions using these different senses.

sense modality description that uses that sense
interoception (your choice)

Exercises: Sensory Density

The point of these exercises is to practice sensory density. For each of the following prompts, write a description that engages three(3) or more senses. The main goal of this exercise is to practice coming up with different sensory impressions for the same scene. It is up to you to rely on your creativity to fill in the sensory details.

Additional instructions:

  • 2 to 3 sentences in length per exercise
  • 3rd person, past tense
  • The POV character is your choice

Prompts: (for each one, use three or more senses!)

  1. Going to the dentist.
  2. Playing hockey outside.
  3. Trench warfare.
  4. Shopping at a large mall.
  5. Dumpster diving.
  6. Casting a magic spell.

Exercises: Sensory Density part 2 – specific challenges

For each of the following, render the given scene/action/object by using the specified sense(s). Some of these are super challenging. Some might require a little bit of research.

Additional instructions:

  • 4 to 6 sentences in length per exercise.
  • 3rd person, past tense.
  • When a specific sense is asked for, come up with a descriptive detail that makes that sense relevant. For example, if you are asked to use smell, you will have to invent some detail in your scene that can be smelled; if you are asked to use nociception, you will have to invent some reason why the POV character is in pain.


  1. Render: dumpster diving, from the POV of a blind raccoon, using touch, smell, taste, and sound. Don’t use vision.
  2. Render: hunting shrimp, from the POV of a narwhal, using any combination of senses, but including salinity detection.
  3. Render: being abducted by aliens, from the POV of a farmer, using any combination of senses, but including sense of gravity, proprioception, chronoception, balance, and interoception (your choice). Make it weird.
  4. Render: running from the police, from the POV of a burglar, using any combination of senses, but including nociception and cardioception.
  5. Render: sick on a rollercoaster, from the POV of someone who ate too much cotton candy, using any combination of senses, but including taste, smell, and at least three different forms of interoception.

 Salient Impressions

Salient impressions are the most powerful sensory impressions in a given scene or setting. They are the things that stand out to the viewpoint character.

Try to render salient sensory impressions for any scene or setting. Imagine yourself in place of the viewpoint character -or rely on a memory of something similar- and capture what draws your attention: in an outhouse, that might be the smell; in a subway, that might be the feeling of cramped bodies invading your personal space, or the jerk-and-stutter of the train while you search for something to hold for balance; if you step outside in winter, the salient impression might be the cold.

Because salient impressions are the ones that draw our attention, it makes sense for them to be included in your descriptions, not just because it helps render the scene, but because it increases psychological fidelity. Your prose will better match psychological reality if you focus on the sensory impressions that are more plausibly drawing the attention of the viewpoint character. And, conversely, immersion can be ruined by focusing on low-salience details when a high-salience detail is available (imagine reading a passage where the POV character is set on fire, and they describe the smell and the colours of the flame: immersion is guaranteed to be broken; the focus in this case should be on the heat and the pain, because of their salience).

Telling Details

The smell of flowers coming through an open window is a “telling detail”, because it also helps to illustrate a larger picture -we can picture the garden even though we are only given the scent.

Telling details are descriptions of smaller parts of the scene that help to paint a bigger picture. Unlike salient details, they are not necessarily the strongest sensory impressions. But telling details give an indication or suggestion of the larger scene, allowing the reader’s imagination fill in the gaps. For example:

  • The ascending-and-descending pitch of a race-car’s engine as it whooshes by. This detail is just about the characteristic sound. But it helps render the larger scene. We can picture the race-car. Maybe we can also feel the wind.

  • A single pair of sneakers squeaking on the basketball court, and the rhythmic bouncing of the ball. Again, this detail is just about the sound. But we can imagine someone practicing basketball by themselves on an empty -probably indoor- basketball court. We can picture their motions. The sound gives an indication of a larger scene.

  • Broken bottles and cigarette butts littering an apartment hallway. I don’t need to explicitly tell you that this is a dirty and run-down apartment. The telling detail informs you of the larger scene. If I asked you whether any of the lights are broken or burnt out, your imagination can probably supply the answer.

A trick for rapidly establishing a scene is to use one broad description, just to situate the reader’s imagination, and then supplement that broad description with one telling detail. The formula is: broad description plus telling detail.

Dave Chappelle used this technique with comedic effect (successful comedians are master story-tellers). He wanted to describe a particularly bad ghetto. This is how he set the scene:

We pulled up to an old rickety building[…]

That’s the broad description. Then comes a telling detail (which Dave Chappelle calls one of “the familiar symptoms of a project”):

A [expletive] crackhead ran this way [skittering noise][…] And then another one jumped out a tree [skittering noise][…].

You could think of “telling details” as “familiar symptoms” if you prefer Dave Chappelle’s terminology. He continues the routine by adding additional telling details to further colour the scene:

I look out the window. Remember, it’s 3 o’clock in the morning. […] I look out the window. There was a [expletive] baby standing on the corner. And the baby -the baby didn’t even look scared. He was just standing there.

It’s a funny picture, but it proves the point. When you want to describe a scene, give the broad description, and then colour it with “telling details” (or “familiar symptoms”).

Don’t over-describe. It is often better to let the reader’s imagination do the heavy lifting. Give them a telling detail and let their mind fill in the blanks.

Exercises: Telling Details

Your goal with these exercises is to rapidly establish a scene by using one broad description, and one or two telling details. You are practicing coming up with evocative details. They should be small details that help paint a bigger picture. Try to create as vivid a scene as you can by using small, suggestive details that create an impression of the larger scene.

Additional instructions:

  • 1 to 2 sentences in length per exercise. Don’t cheat by using really long sentences. Part of the exercise is condensing your descriptions. Deliver a powerful punch by using telling details.
  • 3rd person, past tense.
  • POV character is up to you.


  1. Render: a medieval battlefield after a gruesome battle.
  2. Render: the lobby of a fancy hotel.
  3. Render: an island paradise.
  4. Render: a maniacal gang leader.
  5. Render: a bookish and nerdy university student.
  6. Render: a magical kingdom.
  7. Render: an evil kingdom of a dark lord.
  8. Render: a goblin with a heart of gold.
  9. Render: a prison with a bad reputation full of violent criminals.
  10. Render: the class clown.

Distancing Language (also called “filter words”)

Avoid using language like “he saw” or “she smelled” or “Billy heard” in your descriptions, and instead show the sensations directly. When you present a sensory impression by indicating that a particular character is the one sensing it, you place that character as a barrier between the reader and the experience. This distances the reader from the experience. This is called using “distancing language” or “filter words”. It makes the reader experience less immediate and less immersive.

When you are editing your prose, look for distancing language and get rid of it. When rendering a sensory detail, you don’t need to indicate which sense is being engaged, or who is doing the experiencing. I don’t need to say “the smell of urine fuming from the sidewalk” -by mentioning “urine fumes” the sense modality is implied; I don’t need to say “Billy smelled urine fumes” -if Billy is the point of view character, it is implicit that it is Billy who is experiencing those fumes. By indicating either of these things explicitly, you distance the reader from the experience, putting an additional layer between them and the experience.

Avoid distancing language whenever possible. Don’t say, “Billy saw a goat standing there.” Just show the goat. Leave Billy out of it.

 Exercises: Avoiding Distancing Language

Fix each of the following passages by eliminating the distancing language. They are not good passages, and they need some revision. For some of them, you will have to be creative and invent your own details about the scene (eliminating distancing language is not always a simple matter of cutting words). Feel free to add or delete words as necessary, or completely rework the passage (as long as the gist is the same). Your primary goal is to make the passage feel more immersive by eliminating distancing language -but that will sometimes require inventing details.

  1. Billy walked in to the barn. He could smell that the goat had left something for him.

  2. Gertrude jumped out of the plane. She felt the wind, and she saw the ground far below, but growing slowly larger.

  3. He felt a pull on his hand, like a magnet, sticking his hand to the rune-symbol on the wall.

  4. She walked outside. The temperature was very low, and the wind felt very cold on her face. (For this one, please also get rid of the word “very” both times it appears).

  5. X89’s cyber-sensors picked up the reading of an electromagnetic field. He could feel the buzzing of the field. The device must be nearby.


Sensory density is the degree of compactness of different sensory modalities. Prose with a high sensory density will feel more real and immersive than prose with a low sensory density. A rule of thumb is to aim for three different senses.

Try to give salient sensory impressions. In addition to helping to render the scene, this increases psychological fidelity. Conversely, a passage that neglects a high-salience impression to focus on a low-salience one risks breaking reader immersion.

Avoid distancing language (filter words) like “he saw” or “she smelled” and instead show the sensations directly.

Use broad details to set the scene, and telling details to add colour to the scene. Don’t over-describe. Let the reader’s imagination fill in the scene based on your telling details.

In our exercises, we practiced eliminating distancing language, rewriting to increase sensory density, rendering a scene with high sensory density, using salient details, and using telling details.

Final Words

I hope you liked this post on sensory impressions. Please feel free to leave comments, questions, suggestions, etc. in the comment section.

This site is updated at least once a week with new content. Come back soon for more posts on writing craft or related topics.

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Sonic Texture – Sound and Sense

What’s sharper, a rock or a stone?

The words mean roughly the same thing, but one of them intuitively feels sharper, somehow, and the other feels smooth. This is a feature of language worth noticing. The ‘k’ sound in ‘rock’ just feels kind of sharp, and the ‘n’ sound on ‘stone’ feels soft, smoothing off the word.

What’s pointier, a bauble or a trinket?

Again, the words mean roughly the same thing, but one of them feels pointier, the other rounder. ‘Bauble’ is a round word, somehow, whereas ‘trinket’ is full of sharp edges. Our corresponding mental picture will naturally map on to the shape of these sounds. Probably, a trinket is pictured as something like a little pointy item, maybe star-shaped, whereas a bauble is a round-edged thing.

What’s heavier, a bauble or a trinket?

The weight of a word depends in part on the vowel sounds. To me, it feels as though higher-pitched vowels are lighter (like in ‘tip’), and deeper-pitched vowels are heavier (like in ‘toop’). The felt weight of a word also depends on whether the consonant is voiced or unvoiced; in the following pairs, the first item will feel heavier, because its consonant is voiced: ba/pa, da/ta, ga/ka, za/sa.

Probably, you feel like a trinket is lighter than a bauble, almost weightless, and the bauble you might imagine to have a little bit of weight in the palm of your hand. This is because ‘trinket’ has higher pitched vowels and unvoiced consonants, whereas ‘bauble’ has lower pitched vowels and voiced consonants.

These things have to be sensed, and not everyone is going to feel them exactly the same way. But the point is that sounds have a kind of texture that corresponds to the mental image they create. We can call this the “sonic texture”: the mental impression created by a series of sounds (irrespective of or in addition the semantic meaning of the words they comprise).

Probably the best example of this phenomenon is the poem Jabberwocky, by Lewis Carroll. In this poem, a strange landscape with alien plants and creatures comes to life in the mind of the reader, all through the use of nonsense words that have been engineered to create a sonic texture:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand;

Long time the manxome foe he sought—

So rested he by the Tumtum tree

And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,

The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,

Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,

And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

He left it dead, and with its head

He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?

Come to my arms, my beamish boy!

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”

He chortled in his joy.

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

Lewis Carroll was playing with sonic texture when he made Jabberwocky. Carroll was acutely aware of the “shape” of sounds, and how they evoke images in the mind of the reader. He exploited this feature of our language to create a rich landscape out of the sonic texture of his made-up words. He used simple grammatical structures so that we can understand where the nouns and verbs and adjectives were, and used a basic plot so we can follow the story easily, but the sensory content of the poem is built from the sonic texture of nonsense words. Even though they are made-up words, the poem succeeds in creating vivid mental images.

Learning Goal

Writers should develop sensitivity to the shape of sounds. It will improve their ability to convey the mental image that they are striving for. If a word doesn’t feel quite right, it might be because the sonic texture is not contributing to the desired tone or image.

The following exercises are meant to develop an awareness of the sonic texture of the various sounds -the phonemes- of the English language. If you want to do these exercises, you should probably get a few sheets of paper and something to write with. It’s better for learning.

English Phonemes

Phonemes are the sounds of a language.


Our written language doesn’t correspond exactly to all the sounds of our language. We have five written vowels. We have three times as many spoken vowels.

One of the important features of our vowels is that they can be arranged in a pitch-scale.

Exercises for Vowels: learning the vowels and the pitch-scale

  1. Write out all the vowels in a column, arranged into the pitch-scale
  2. Think of two example words for each vowel in the scale

Vowels: Pitch-profile

Any string of syllables will have a pitch-profile: how the pitch of the vowels rises or falls. If the profile goes from high to low, it will contribute to a sense of a mood getting worse; if it goes from low to high, it will contribute to a sense of a mood improving.

Consider the following line from The Princess Bride:

“On the high seas your ship attacked, and the dread pirate Roberts never takes prisoners.”

This sentence has an overall decline in pitch, contributing to the sense that something bad has happened. Moreover, if we break it into its three constitutive peaks, each of them has a descending profile: “on the high seas your ship attacked”; “the dread pirate Roberts”; “never takes prisoners” -each of these segments has descending pitch-profile. This creates an intuitive sense of descending emotional tone, which works with the semantic content of the line to achieve the intended emotional effect. The line wouldn’t have worked if it was written this way:

“The dread pirate Roberts never takes prisoners, and your ship attacked on the high seas.”

It means the same thing, but the line isn’t good. One reason this line doesn’t work* is because the pitch-profile is mismatched with the intended tone. It goes from low to high, ending on “high seas”, which runs counter to the feeling that the sentence is meant to evoke. It should end on a low note, not a high one.

I don’t mean to imply that William Goldman was consciously engineering a pitch-profile for this sentence. But good writers have an intuitive sense of these things, honed through a lifetime of practice. They feel their way around the sentence until it does what they want it to do; they sense when a sentence isn’t working and they try changes until it does. And sometimes, what’s not working -or what could be made to work better- is the pitch-profile.

This is a skill that can be developed. You can hope to develop it just by reading and writing a lot, and paying attention to what sounds right and what doesn’t. Or you can do some exercises to specifically develop that particular skill.

The goal with the next exercises is to improve sensitivity to pitch-profiles and their corresponding impact on the reader.

Pitch-profile exercises:

  1. Create a sentence with a roughly ascending pitch profile using made-up words; Create a contrasting sentence with the same made-up words, and a roughly descending pitch profile.
  2. Create a sentence with something sad happening, and a roughly descending pitch-profile.
  3. Create a sentence with something happy happening, and a roughly ascending pitch-profile.
  4. Locate a line in a book or movie where something good or bad is revealed. Map out the pitch-profile by drawing a line graph over the sentence, representing the pitch of the vowels. Does the pitch-profile complement the semantic content?

Note: because English places varying stresses on syllables, some vowels will be more important than others in determining the pitch-profile. If you know how to do scansion, you should focus on the stressed syllables when determining a pitch-profile.

The Consonants

This is going to be harder than the vowels. The consonants don’t map on to a neat-and-tidy scale like the vowels do. And we care about more than just pitch: we care about a wide range of potential mental impressions. Some of these sounds feel rounder or sharper, weaker or stronger, smaller or bigger, hotter or colder, etc, and the features we care about will change depending on the context. This is something that has to be intuited.

A list of English consonants can be found here.

The following exercises are meant to (a) increase familiarity with the consonants in the English language (not just the written ones), and (b) develop awareness of sense impressions created by the consonants.

Consonant Exercises – Familiarity with Consonants:

  1. Write out all the consonants in a column (it doesn’t need to be organised in any way)
  2. Think of two example words for each consonant

Consonant Exercises – Developing Sense Impressions:

  1. On a separate sheet, put the consonants on a scale from sharp to round (and “I can’t tell” in the middle). No two consonants can occupy the exact same position (you are going to have to do some tough discrimination -it might feel arbitrary- but try anyway).
  2. On a separate sheet, put the consonants on a scale from heavy to light (and “I can’t tell” in the middle). As above, no two consonants can occupy the same position.
  3. On a separate sheet, put the consonants on a scale from rough to silky (and “I can’t tell” in the middle). As above, no two consonants can occupy the same position.
  4. Are there patterns of correspondence between the different scales? Does an item’s position on one scale determine its approximate position on a different scale?

Sonic Texture Exercises

Okay, we’ve looked at vowels and consonants, now we’ll put them together. These exercises are all meant to develop awareness of the sonic texture created by strings of syllables -vowels and consonants working together to create a mental impression.

Sonic Texture Exercises:

  1. Create a list of ten nonsense words, between one and three syllables (most should be two syllables).
  2. For each nonsense word, choose a colour that best fits, based on its sonic texture; say the word and try to imagine what colour it invokes. You can’t use the same colour twice (but you can use patterns like stripes or dots, etc). For example: which word is “deep purple”, which is “yellow with green spots”, etc.
  3. For each nonsense word, choose an animal that best fits, based on the sonic texture; say the word and try to imagine what animal it invokes. You can’t use the same animal twice. But you can use imaginary animals, or descriptions like “something with a long tail”.
  4. On a separate sheet, place your nonsense words on a scale from:
    1. sharp to round
    2. heavy to light
    3. magnetic to electric
    4. another adjective of your choice to its antonym (or to another pole of meaning)
  5. Have someone else create a scale with the same words that you used. Compare your scale(s) with theirs, looking for similarities and differences in placement of words on the scale. Which words did you place on similar points in the scale? Which words landed in different places in the scale? What do these similarities and differences tell you about the sonic texture of that word?
  6. Write a haiku or a ballad stanza using only made-up words (you can use real articles and conjunctions if you like). Your poem should meet the following conditions:
    • Your poem has a real word(s) for a title (like “alligator” or “lemonade stand”)
    • Your poem uses a sonic-profile to create a sense of changing mood
    • Your poem uses sonic-texture to evoke images based on the title
    • Your poem uses only made-up words (except for articles and conjunctions).


We looked at sonic texture: the mental impression created by a series of sounds. We looked at pitch-profile, the way a string of vowels can rise or fall in pitch and contribute to the changing emotional tone of a sentence. We familiarized ourselves with the phonemes of the English language. We exercised our awareness of sonic texture, for consonants and vowels, and for their combinations. And we practiced using sonic texture to create mental impressions.

Final Comments

I hope you liked this article on Sonic Texture. This site is updated at least once a week with articles about writing.


* This variation also ruins the punch of the original line, which was expertly withheld until the very last word, where the full impact of the sentence unfurls on reaching the word ‘prisoner’; in the inferior variation, the implication that Westley has been killed is seen coming, so the line loses its punch by comparison.