Are You Ready for the SAT & ACT?

Power of the “Word”

A Note on Styles of Discourse

Although all of the examples on the previous page say roughly the same thing, we’ve seen how single words can give some nuance or additional information to that meaning. Another thing to notice is that different styles of writing draw on different uses of the language. We mentioned that the last sentence is a more literary use of syntax, and the same could be said for the freakin’ papers, though this one is not so eloquent.

While there is some reasonable variance in how non-fiction prose is written—each author has a style and voice, for example—nearly every type of literary fiction is written in a different way. That’s one reason fiction passages on SAT and ACT can be so much tougher to understand.

In a work by a single author, we tend to think of every word as that author’s unless we have some reason not to, like quotations or italics. In other words, we think of the author’s voice as the sole voice within a passage. However, this is not always the case, and especially since the mid-nineteenth century, literary fiction can be written in many voices at once. Separating those voices from one another is often essential to understanding the meaning of a literary text and an author’s own role in it.

In a sentence like this one, there are clearly two voices at work.

Stephanie thought, “I can’t wait until volleyball season starts again.”

There’s one voice inside of quotation marks and one voice outside of them. The voice inside quotation marks is Stephanie’s: The quotation marks imply that the words come from Stephanie herself, even if the author of the text is the one who wrote them. The voice outside quotation marks is that of the narrator. We don’t always know if the narrator is the author him- or herself, but in the sentence above, we do know that the narrator’s voice is separate from Stephanie’s. This kind of sentence, in which the distinctions between narrator and speaker are clear, is called direct discourse because the discourse, or speech, comes directly from the speaker him- or herself.

Sometimes, those voices can appear without quotation marks, but the author can still signal to us that there is more than one voice appearing in the text. Take the following:

Stephanie thought to herself that she couldn’t wait until volleyball season started again.

In this sentence, there are no quotations, but it is built much like the first one. Where the first sentence says Stephanie thought, this one says Stephanie thought to herself that. Then, although it does not appear in quotations, she couldn’t wait until volleyball season started again, is itself a rendering of Stephanie’s thought, and as such, it is indirectly in Stephanie’s voice. This type of speech is called indirect discourse. As with direct discourse, the speech is clearly marked, but where direct discourse quotes directly from the speaker, indirect discourse essentially paraphrases the words of the speaker and incorporates them into the narrative voice.

As you know, however, things aren’t always quite this easy. Let’s try one more.

Stephanie was excited. She couldn’t wait for volleyball to start again!

Now, there are no quotations in these sentences, so if there’s any discourse, it must be indirect. The problem, though, is that there’s really no indication from the narrator that Stephanie is the one speaking here—there are no words like thought, felt, or said. Still, the italicized word wait and the exclamation point at the end of the sentence indicate an emphasis and excitement that is not the narrator’s. As we know from the first sentence, it is Stephanie herself who is excited, and this non-quoted, non-specific second sentence must be an indirect rendering of Stephanie’s own thoughts.

This complex form of writing is called free indirect discourse. It’s indirect discourse, as in the previous sentence, because it is not quoted. But in this instance, it’s free because it flows freely in and out of the narrator’s speech. Free indirect discourse is an important literary style that was introduced to English writing by Jane Austen in the 1820s. In fact, this style of writing has become so prevalent that we probably don’t think of it as having an inventor at all. Moreover, many of the things we think of as literature’s assets—psychological probing, layering of voices and perspectives—were only made possible through the literary convention of free indirect discourse. It looks like Jane Austen was doing a lot more than writing beautiful love stories about brainy women and their reluctantly sweet men!

In the following exercise, you are given two sentences. Explain how the word or phrase in the second sentence changes the meaning of the first.

21. Colleen goes to her physics lecture.

Colleen seldom goes to her physics lecture.


22. Rosita waited for her brother after school.

Rosita eagerly waited for her brother after school.


23. I ate the rest of the ice cream.

already ate the rest of the ice cream.


24. In a rage, Henry threw the chicken salad across the room.

In a rage, Henry threw up the chicken salad across the room.


25. I’ve never had good Chinese food.

I’ve never really had good Chinese food.


In the following exercise, choose the correct word to fulfill the stated purpose of the sentence.

26. Steven gave up trying to learn the piano: doing so was _______ hard. (Choose a word that indicates that learning to play the piano is beyond Steven’s abilities.)

a)    very

b)    pretty

c)    too

d)    extremely

27. The two litigants decide to tear ______ the contract and draw up a new one. (Choose a word that indicates the litigants intend to discard the contract.)

a)    down

b)    through

c)    into

d)    up

28. It’s _________ difficult to find good deals in the months leading up to Christmas. (Choose a word that indicates an extreme difficulty unique to the months described in the sentence compared with other months.)

a)    really

b)    especially

c)    somewhat

d)    totally

29. James ________ found his way to class. (Choose a word that indicates that James made his way to class in no particular rush.)

a)    eventually

b)    hurriedly

c)    once

d)    confusedly

30. This seat is the absolute best _______! (Choose a word that shows the seat to be the best within a small selection of seats.)

a)    ever

b)    of all

c)    available

d)    around