Dialogue plays an important part in fiction – it brings characters to life and advances the plot; the dialogue must seem real in order to be credible, although it may be adjusted to be reader-friendly. A recent Ph.D. thesis from the University of Gothenburg now shows that the requirement that fiction should capture the readers' interest may also influence the use of linguistic constructions in fiction dialogue.
Karin Axelsson has studied tag questions in British English fiction dialogue and made comparisons to spoken conversation; her conclusion is that their use in fiction dialogue is influenced by a focus on problems, conflicts and confrontations and an avoidance of everyday conversations on trivial matters.
English tag questions usually consist of a statement followed by a tag, as in It's interesting, isn't it? and You can't afford that, can you? These are very common in real-life conversation and interesting to study, as they display large formal and functional variation. Axelsson has analysed over 2,500 tag questions for their formal features and over 600 of these also for their functions, using a large corpus of both written texts and transcribed speech: the British National Corpus.
The results show that tag questions are much less frequent in fiction dialogue than in spoken conversation. "In addition, they are in several ways different as to their formal features. The tag subject is, for example, mostly you in fiction dialogue, but it in spoken conversation," says Axelsson.
In order to understand the background to these differences, Axelsson has developed and applied a hierarchical model for the functional categorization of tag questions. An important distinction in the functional model is made between response-eliciting and rhetorical tag questions. Tag questions have traditionally often been described as seeking confirmation; "that's why it's surprising that most tag questions in my data have been found to be rhetorical, both in fiction dialogue and spoken conversation".
Among rhetorical tag questions, there are clear differences between those in fiction dialogue and those in spoken conversation: a majority of rhetorical tag questions in fiction dialogue are addressee-oriented, i.e. they concern the addressee, whereas most rhetorical tag questions in spoken conversation are speaker-centred, i.e. they present the opinion of the speaker.
Addressee-oriented tag questions in fiction dialogue often challenge the addressee; this seems due to the depiction of problems, conflicts and confrontations in fiction. Axelsson also finds that speaker-centred tag questions, which often deal with trivial matters in spoken conversation, are used much less in fiction dialogue, since they often do not bring the plot forward.
There are also functional differences among the response-eliciting tag questions: in spoken conversation, the speakers of such tag questions are usually uncertain and seek confirmation, whereas, in fiction dialogue, the characters also use confrontational tag questions in order to demand the confirmation of facts they are already quite certain of.
Tag questions may also consist of an imperative plus a tag, as in Come here, will you? These are relatively rare in spoken conversation, but, in fiction dialogue, they are used more often, in particular as commands; again, this might be due to the depiction of problems, conflicts and confrontations. However, it is also suggested that power relations may be more unequal between fictional characters than between real-life interactants.
EurekAlert. 2011. "Fiction dialogue differs from spoken conversation". EurekAlert. Posted: May 16, 2011. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-05/uog-fdd051611.php