CLiC and Dickens’s not-so-conspicuous techniques of characterisation: Reporting verbs

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Pablo Ruano San Segundo (@pablo_uex on Twitter) is a Lecturer at the University of Extremadura, Spain. He is a member of the CLiC Dickens Advisory Board and is an expert on reporting verbs in Dickens’s novels. In this post Pablo shares how he uses CLiC in his research.

The creation of Dickens’s most memorable characters is partly a result of his talent for endowing them with individual voices and characteristic turns of speech. Scholars have frequently pointed to his skill in the individualisation of the voices of his characters through the use of regional variation, conspicuous speech defects or the repetition of striking turns of phrase. However, there exist other devices with which characters’ voices can be likewise individualised but which have been traditionally underexplored in his literary style, such as reporting verbs. As Culpeper (2001: 215) stresses in his model of characterisation, the way people speak can trigger information about personality. In fictional narratives, reporting verbs can fulfil an important function in this respect (Ruano San Segundo 2017). In the case of Dickens’s novels, they play an important role in the creation of Dickens’s memorable characters, as there exists an unexpected regularity in the use of specific verbs to report the way that certain characters speak. These verbs can be quickly searched for and scrutinised across Dickens’s novels using CLiC, thus leading to new insights into how readers perceive fictional characters. In this post I discuss some meaningful patterns in Dickens’s use of reporting verbs.

Gender is, for example, one dimension of variation in Dickens’s construction of characters through their ways of speaking and the use of reporting verbs (see Ruano San Segundo forthcoming 2018a). A significant number of verbs are indeed associated with either male or female characters throughout Dickens’s novels, which contributes to their well-known dichotomous characterisation. Thus, the portrayal of male characters as self-assured and leading creatures is very much the result of the systematic use of verbs such as bawl, bluster, boast, complain, groan, growl, grumble, insist, order, persist, roar, shout, snarl, sneer, snort, thunder or vociferate to report their words. Here is a concordance of thundered in non-quotes in Dickens’s novels. Of the 16 occurrences, 10 are reporting verbs. As can be seen, all of them are used to report male characters’ discourse.

Concordance 1: occurrences of thundered in non-quotes in Dickens’s 15 novels

Conversely, Dickens frequently reports female discourse using verbs such as breath, drawl, entreat, mourn, mumble, languish, lisp, pout, screech or sob, which contribute to portraying Dickensian women as long-suffering and afflicted characters. This is the case of Caddy in Bleak House, whose words are systematically glossed using the verb sob, as can be seen in the next concordance.

Concordance 2: occurrences of sobbed in non-quotes in Dickens’s 15 novels, applying the filter Caddy in the KWICGrouper

The solid catalogue of gender-specific verbs contributes to enhancing Dickens’s famously antagonistic characterisation of male and female character types. Anyone using CLiC can actually search for these patterns – an inventory of 130 verbs is provided in Ruano San Segundo (2016). My advice is to search for them by selecting the non-quotes of Dickens’s 15 novels in the Concordance tab. For more specific searches, the KWICGrouper can then be used. [Editorial remark: you can watch a video tutorial to see the KWICGrouper in action; whilst this was done in an older version of CLiC, 1.5, the basic functionality remains the same].

Apart from gender, the characterisation of certain character types is also partly the result of the use of reporting verbs. For example, verbs related to animal sounds such as growl, bawl, roar, snarl or croak are repeatedly used to report the words of male villains (Ruano San Segundo forthcoming 2018b). Well-known evil figures such as Bill Sikes (Oliver Twist), Ralph Nickleby (Nicholas Nickleby), Ned Dennis (Barnaby Rudge), Jonas Chuzzlewit (Martin Chuzzlewit), Uriah Heep (David Copperfield), Blandois (Little Dorrit), Dolge Orlick (Great Expectations) or Rogue Riderhood (Our Mutual Friend) are, for instance, all characters that growl. By systematically using growl, Dickens is able to use their similar hoarse voices to portray the evil nature of these analogous characters. This stance is further reinforced by the systematicity with which this verb is associated with the same character in certain novels. For instance, growl is used to report the words of Ralph Nickleby eight times in Nicholas Nickleby, as shown in the screenshot below. The repeated use of growl to gloss his words gives Ralph an animal-like way of speaking that clearly enhances his portrayal as a villain.

Concordance 3: occurrences of growled in non-quotes in Dickens’s 15 novels, applying the filter Ralph in the KWICGrouper

Finally, Dickens’s use of reporting verbs is also marked by alliteration. It does not seem a coincidence that a gaoler grumbles in A Tale of Two Cities, Florence falters (Dombey and Son), Susan sobs (Susan Nipper, also in Dombey and Son), the whelp whimpers (Tom Gradgrind in Hard Times), Rogue Riderhood roars (Our Mutual Friend), Jacques Three croaks (A Tale of Two Cities), Mr Grimwig growls (Oliver Twist), Sam soliloquises (Pickwick Papers) or Mr. and Miss Squeers sneer (Nicholas Nickleby). This hitherto underexplored use of reporting verbs, in which I am currently working on using CLiC, also seems to have further implications in terms of characterisation. Let us take bluster as an example. Not only is this verb used to report the words of Brass (The Old Curiosity Shop), Mr. Bounderby (Hard Times) or Mr. Boffin (Our Mutual Friend), which clearly entails an alliterative use, but this specific verb is used up to three times to report Mr. Bounderby’s words, as can be seen in Concordance 4. This triple use of the verb with the evil banker may contribute to reinforcing his callous and remorseless character through the violence with which his words are uttered.

Concordance 4:  occurrences of blustered in non-quotes in Dickens’s 15 novels

These alliterative patterns (such as blustered Bounderby) in the use of reporting verbs may even entail a somewhat evocative use in the frame of a serial publication, as Dickens makes use of some of these verbs when the character with which the verb alliterates reappears after some time out of the story. This is the case of Mr. Grimwig in Oliver Twist. He is a secondary character who appears only in chapters 14, 17, 41 and 51 of the novel. Three of the four occurrences of the verb growl to report his words take place in chapter 41, as can be seen in the concordance below. It does not seem far-fetched to surmise that Dickens chose growl to model Grimwig words when he reappears in the story to remind his public who this character is through this particular way of speaking, as there was an eleven-month lapse between Chapter 17 (Instalment 7, released in September 1837) and Chapter 41 (Instalment 18, released in October 1838). This evocative use of growled Mr. Grimwig is further reinforced by the double use of his habitual phrase I’ll eat my head (see concordance lines 2 and 4), a well-known device for characterisation in long serial works (Ingham 1979: 144).

Concordance 5: occurrences of growled Mr. Grimwig in non-quotes in Oliver Twist

In light of these examples, we may safely conclude that Dickens’s use of reporting verbs should also be borne in mind when discussing his well-known techniques of characterisation. Albeit less conspicuously, these verbs can eloquently project character information.

This post has set out to illustrate how CLiC can help find textual patterns that are shared across novels of the same author and reveal hitherto unremarked patterns in terms of characterisation. In combination with traditional readings of the novels, innovative corpus tools like CLiC can be used to study literary texts and, as stated in CLiC homepage, “lead to new insights into how readers perceive fictional characters”.

Please cite this blog post as follows: Ruano San Segundo, P. (2018, January 13).  CLiC and Dickens’s not-so-conspicuous techniques of characterisation: Reporting verbs [Blog post] Retrieved from


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