Use Google’s Ngram Viewer to Craft Authentic Fiction

by Carla Douglas

Image by Brewbooks (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Have you ever read a book that you otherwise enjoyed, but something about it nagged at you? Finally, you identify it: the language doesn’t quite ring true.

It could be because a character says something “out of character,” or it could be because the language the author is using is inconsistent with the period of the book.

This is something readers might not notice at first, but if they encounter it more than a few times, they might give up on the book and on the author. Ouch!
If you are a fiction writer, and particularly if you are writing in period, there’s an easy way to avoid making these kinds of gaffes. Introduced in 2010, the Google books Ngram Vieweris a phrase-usage graphing tool that can be used to analyze the history of language and culture.

You may already have heard of this tool. If you haven’t, Grammar Girl has written a detailed post explaining what it is and what it can do. It’s been on my radar lately because of how it’s been used to analyze language in two of my TV favourites: Mad Men and Downton Abbey.

Employing a variety of analytics including Google ngram, historian Benjamin Schmidt determines that Mad Men, in spite of its reputation for capturing the period of the early 1960s, is guilty of a number of errors, including use of the phrases “the medium is the message” and “military-industrial complex” considerably sooner than they were coined. You can read Schmidt’s Atlantic article here.

And using the wonderfully titled “anachronism machine,” Schmidt finds similar inconsistencies in Downton Abbey – use of the phrase “black market,” for example, appears in an episode set during WW1, when the expression didn’t enter our lexicon until WW2. Read more about Schmidt’s analysis and the anachronism machine here.

It’s a fascinating subject. Try it out: enter a phrase or expression in the search window. I retrieved the image below when I entered the term “women’s lib.” I was a little surprised to see its usage peaking in 1975 – I would have guessed it was earlier.
Click to enlarge
For writers, the Google ngram viewer has any number of applications. Use it to

craft dialogue: Check to see if the words you’re putting in your character’s mouth correspond to the time period you’re writing in. For instance, before your character utters the phrase “all dolled up,” find out if she might be speaking well ahead of her time.

At the same time, you can use the ngram viewer to help reveal character. Put a phrase like “women’s lib” in the mouth of a character in a contemporary novel and immediately he (or she!) appears dated, stodgy and perhaps even a bit buffoonish. Ngram provides a snapshot of just how out of step this character is.  

check historical accuracy: Before you launch into a description of a setting or event, make sure there was such a thing as an “amusement park,” for example, or if citizens would know what was meant by a “red alert.” You can also find out when a word began being used as a different part of speech – “impact” as a verb is the most common example of this. Finally, ngram allows you to compare more than one word or phrase with others, providing a nice visual of how language changes.

Of course, using the Google ngram viewer is just dipping a toe into the water of language study. Especially if you write historical fiction, you’ll want to explore this subject further, with other resources such as usage guides and etymology, idiom and historical slang dictionaries, to name a few.

Taking the time to research period language will make your characters believable and your writing authentic. What’s more, it will set you apart from the amateurs.

Related Posts
What Tone Are You Aiming For?
Setting the Right Tone — Why it Matters
Make Your Writing More Readable

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *