The Power of Phrasing

Consider the following sentences:

“I was hit in the leg.”
“I hit my leg.”
“Susan hit me in the leg.”
“I walked into Susan and hit my leg.”

What is happening in each of these sentences?  The speaker has hit his leg.  What is the difference between each of these sentences?  The wording.

In the first, it sounds like no one had anything to do with the injury, including the one who sustained it.  It’s using passive voice, where the subject of the sentence has the verb happen to him.  Something else hit him in the leg, but he isn’t naming names.  It sounds like he’s trying not to blame anyone, but he knows it wasn’t his fault either.  He’s shrugging off the injury and keeping it quiet.

In the second sentence it sounds like it was a mistake, but it was a mistake for which the speaker is taking full responsibility.  In this, there isn’t any semblance of blaming anyone.  No one and nothing else is mentioned but the speaker and his leg– active voice.

In the third sentence, the speaker is definitely blaming someone, namely, Susan.  He wants people to know that it wasn’t his fault that he was hit– it was Susan’s fault completely.

And in the fourth sentence, the speaker once again names Susan, but takes responsibility for it himself.  It was his clumsiness that made him walk into Susan (who had no part in it other than simply standing there).

I find this extremely interesting.  You can say the same thing in many different ways by changing around the responsibilities of each word.  If one word is the subject, it means one thing.  If another word is the subject, it means another thing.  And how you use each word depends completely on your opinion of what happened– or the opinion you want your readers to believe you have.

That’s where the real power lies.  Sometimes it’s difficult to slow yourself down in the middle of a great scene and make someone say something one way instead of another, but it really does pay off.  The reader might be reading pretty quickly, but their subconscious will still pick up that little anomaly.  They’ll start seeing connections that will be quite difficult to trace back to a source, but which will help them make sense of character relationships and such.  I’m just learning about this– a few months ago, I didn’t even know what passive voice was (and for that knowledge I thank you, Latin curriculum).

Another thing you can add that will instantly make readers see something they hadn’t expected is an extra sentence.  It may or may not be congruous with the rest of the statement, but it adds a lot.  It can either strengthen an emotion the earlier statement already conveys, or it can almost completely contradict it and show the character’s personality in more depth.  Let me explain.

“Good morning.”  Pretty generic, isn’t it?  You can’t really switch the words around because it’s a phrase that almost everyone uses without thinking.  If you said, “The morning is good” everyone would look at you like you’re crazy.  So what do you do?  You add a sentence.

“Good morning.  Beautiful day, isn’t it?”  If you think about it, that second statement is redundant, but it isn’t something a person would say without thinking.  Someone who adds that second sentence is obviously aware of the world around them, and enjoys the beauty of it.  Similarly, “Good morning.  Miserable day, isn’t it?” would convey a mood of dissatisfaction.

“Good morning.  I see you got my package.”  Obviously the speaker had sent a package and was anxious to see it received.  He doesn’t know whether it got where it was going or not, and he’d like to know.  Now he does, so he makes that remark.  And as our last example, a quite strong adaptation of this saying:

This is currently my desktop picture, which proves that my computer is trying to kill me.

See how much character is conveyed in that second sentence?  It’s obviously someone who wants the other person dead.  It’s also someone who, though probably disappointed about it, is still calm.  Of course, it could be exactly the opposite: a person who found out about the assassination attempt too late to do anything about it and is relieved to find his friend still alive.  With a single adverbial phrase, it would become clear.  “Good morning.  I see the assassins have failed,” he said impassively.  (That’s the first option above.)  “Good morning.  I see the assassins have failed,” he said, obviously relieved.  (That’s the exact opposite.)

See how much difference sentence structure makes?  See how much difference one more sentence can make?  See how much difference a single word can make?  It’s just like Mark Twain said:

The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.

Leave a comment


  1. What a wonderful picture, Head Phil! I wanted to send it to my sister’s email tomorrow morning so that it greeted her when she first checked her emails — but, alas, I could not figure out how to send a delayed email.

  2. Well said. I’m taking careful note of this, because different characters will phrase things differently than others. For instance, I’ve got an insane man who said, “Stole the gemstones, she did. Find her, I must!” He has a strange way of speaking. Another character of mine has said something similar, but like this: “That complete twit stole all of the expensive…PRICELESS jewels. I’ll find her, if it’s the last….NEXT thing I do!” It’s actually quite amusing to hear each person’s voices in the stories.

  3. Good point.

    Wow, my desktop is much more attractive than yours, Lliam! *coughcoughcough* It’s Legolas. *coughcoughcough*

  4. Charley R

     /  November 30, 2012

    Excellent point here! And I love the assassins-in-the-morning greeting – I use it on my friends quite a bit. Half the time they don’t hear me and i have to repeat myself, which is always antagonising.

    As for lightning and lightning bugs . . . blast. I KNEW I was doing something wrong when I tried to electrocute the cat!

  5. That’s hilarious. I’m going to have to say greet someone like that someday…

    Anyway, this is a good point (as always). It reminds me that I need to pay more attention to the words I put on the screen, instead of just putting up utter nonsense. Or something close to it. I barely ever pay attention to the exact wording. (Which is why, apparently, I have a lot of things written in the passive voice, which I’m told isn’t always the best to have…)

  6. Sherlock says that Germans abuse their verbs. I say not, but it still gets awkward. Darn you, grammar.
    I will call upon this to make my main character seem awkward–because he rather is. (My sister just said “One does not just walk into Mordor”–her exact words, so I added “except when one does.”)

  1. The Power of Phrasing « Painted Vanilla

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