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8 Extraordinary Examples of Constrained Writing

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Constrained writing is a catch-all literary term for a whole host of written forms or techniques that limit what or how authors or poets write by forcing them to use a specific set of words, or to work within a strict set of rules or parameters. In simple terms, poetry and even song-writing can be considered examples of constrained writing, since their lines often need to rhyme or contain a fixed number of syllables or beats. Some forms of poetry are naturally more rigid then others—haikus, for instance, fit their 17 syllables into the strict pattern 5–7–5, while all but three of William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets follow the rhyme scheme ABAB–CDCD–EFEF–GG—but at the most extreme, some forms of constrained writing are even more self-limiting and end up being very, very constrained indeed.


One of the simplest forms of constrained writing is limited or mandated vocabulary, wherein a writer either prohibits certain words or else limits themselves to a particular set or number of words, or to words that fit a particular brief. Doug Nufer’s appropriately-titled 2004 novel Never Again, for instance, didn’t use a single word more than once. Le Train de Nulle Part (The Train From Nowhere) by the French novelist Michel Thaler didn’t contain a single verb. And the 2008 novel let me tell you by Paul Griffiths comprised only the 483 words spoken by Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

But probably the most famous example of a work of mandated vocabulary is Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs And Ham (1960), which was written in response to a bet between Seuss and his publisher, Bennett Cerf, that he could not complete a story using no more than 50 different words. Seuss returned with a work using only the words a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would and you, and won the bet.


A lipogram is a literary work in which a particular letter of the alphabet is intentionally avoided. The difficulty of writing lipograms obviously depends on the frequency of the letter or letters in question (after all, this description entirely avoids using the letter Z without a problem), but things get really tough when it’s the most common letters in the language that are excluded.

None of the more than 50,000 words in Ernest Vincent Wright’s novel Gadsby contain the letter E, for instance, and nor do any of the words in the French writer Georges Perec’s 1969 novel La Disparition—which was translated into English, still following Perec’s original rule, by the writer and critic Gilbert Adair in 1995 and published under the title A Void. Perec later published a novella, Les Revenentes (1972), incidentally, in which E was the only vowel.


A rhopalic poem or sentence is one in which each successive word is one letter (or, typically in poetry, one syllable) longer than the previous one. Due to the fact that the personal pronoun, I, is only one letter long in English, shorter sentences that follow this rule are fairly easy to construct (“I am now here,” “I do her hair,” “I go and walk there weekly”) but as the sentences get longer, rhopalism becomes an increasingly tough rule to follow. In 1965, however, the linguist and author Dmitri Borgmann came up with a staggering 20-word sentence that followed the rules of rhopalism perfectly:

“I do not know where family doctors acquired illegibly perplexing handwriting; nevertheless, extraordinary pharmaceutical intellectuality, counterbalancing indecipherability, transcendentalizes intercommunications’ incomprehensibleness.”


An abecedarius is a specific type of acrostic poem in which successive lines or verses begin with each letter of the alphabet in order. Geoffrey Chaucer’s 23-verse poem "A. B. C."—written in the 14th century, before J, U and W were even added to the English alphabet—is among the form’s most famous examples.


A palindrome is of course a word (civic, radar, rotator) or a phrase (“don’t nod,” “was it a cat I saw?”) that reads the same backwards as forwards. As a form of constrained writing, however, palindromes can be extended to extraordinary lengths: In his 2012 book, This Is A Book, the comedian and writer Demetri Martin compiled a 500-word poem “about a guy in a strip club who becomes infatuated with two strippers, Tina and Stella.” The entire poem—which opens “Sexes. / Eh, the sexes. / Never even. Still, it’s DNA.”—reads the same backwards and forwards.


A tautogram is an extreme form of alliteration in which all of the words in a sentence or phrase begin with the same letter. Just like a palindrome, it’s a form of constrained writing that can be taken to extraordinary extremes—as in the 1974 novel Alphabetical Africa, by the Austrian-born American novelist Walter Abish.

Chapter 1 of the book contains only words beginning with A. In chapter 2, words beginning with B are introduced alongside the A-words, followed by C-words in chapter 3, and so on, until chapter 26 is entirely unrestrained. The remaining 26 chapters of the book then proceed to restrict the writing, first by removing the Z-words in chapter 27, then the Y-words in chapter 28, and so on until chapter 52, which is again limited only to words beginning with A.


A pangram is a sentence that contains every letter of the alphabet. The most famous example is “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” (which is believed to have originally been introduced in the 1880s as a handwriting exercise, before being picked up by typists and stenographers), while less familiar pangrams include “the five boxing wizards jump quickly” and “jackdaws love my big sphinx of quartz.”

“The quick brown fox” runs to a total of 35 letters, although it can be reduced to 33 by replacing the first “the” with “a.” But the aim of pangram writing is obviously to produce as short a sentence as possible, with the ultimate goal being a perfectly grammatical sentence containing just 26 letters. Understandably so-called “perfect” pangrams like these often end up incorporating abbreviations, obscure words, and alternative spellings, but a handful of examples have nevertheless been created, including “Mr. Jock, TV quiz Ph.D., bags few lynx” and “cwm fjord-bank glyphs vext quiz” (a cwm being a Welsh valley, and vext being an old spelling of vexed).


Pilish is an extraordinary form of constrained writing that straddles the boundary between language and mathematics: Pilish literature is written in such a way that the number of letters in each successive word is equal to the successive decimal places of pi, 3.14159265359…

The first few numbers of pi can be memorized using the mnemonic “How I wish I could calculate pi,” while extra decimal places can be added by memorizing ever longer sentences (“How I want a drink, alcoholic of course, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics” takes pi to its 14th decimal place). But as a form of constrained writing, Pilish was taken to an extreme by the American mathematician Mike Keith in his 1996 short story Cadaeic Cadenza, which comprises 3835 words all following the decimal sequence of pi (0s are words 10 letters long). As if that weren’t mindboggling enough, in 2010 Keith published the novella Not A Wake—which pushed that total to 10,000.

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Rebecca O'Connell
What's the Longest Word in the World? Here are 12 of Them, By Category
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Rebecca O'Connell

Antidisestablishmentarianism, everyone’s favorite agglutinative, entered the pop culture lexicon on August 17, 1955, when Gloria Lockerman, a 12-year-old girl from Baltimore, correctly spelled it on The $64,000 Question as millions of people watched from their living rooms. At 28 letters, the word—which is defined as a 19th-century British political movement that opposes proposals for the disestablishment of the Church of England—is still regarded as the longest non-medical, non-coined, nontechnical word in the English language, yet it keeps some robust company. Here are some examples of the longest words by category.


Note the ellipses. All told, the full chemical name for the human protein titin is 189,819 letters, and takes about three-and-a-half hours to pronounce. The problem with including chemical names is that there’s essentially no limit to how long they can be. For example, naming a single strand of DNA, with its millions and millions of repeating base pairs, could eventually tab out at well over 1 billion letters.


The longest word ever to appear in literature comes from Aristophanes’ play, Assemblywomen, published in 391 BC. The Greek word tallies 171 letters, but translates to 183 in English. This mouthful refers to a fictional fricassee comprised of rotted dogfish head, wrasse, wood pigeon, and the roasted head of a dabchick, among other culinary morsels. 


At 45 letters, this is the longest word you’ll find in a major dictionary. An inflated version of silicosis, this is the full scientific name for a disease that causes inflammation in the lungs owing to the inhalation of very fine silica dust. Despite its inclusion in the dictionary, it’s generally considered superfluous, having been coined simply to claim the title of the longest English word.


The longest accepted binomial construction, at 42 letters, is a species of soldier fly native to Thailand. With a lifespan of five to eight days, it’s unlikely one has ever survived long enough to hear it pronounced correctly.


This 30-letter thyroid disorder is the longest non-coined word to appear in a major dictionary.


By virtue of having one more letter than antidisestablishmentarianism, this is the longest non-technical English word. A mash-up of five Latin roots, it refers to the act of describing something as having little or no value. While it made the cut in the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster volumes refuse to recognize it, chalking up its existence to little more than linguistic ephemera.


At 17 characters, this is the longest accepted isogram, a word in which every letter is used only once, and refers to the underlying dermal matrix that determines the pattern formed by the whorls, arches, and ridges of our fingerprints. 


Though the more commonly accepted American English version carries only one L, both Oxford and Merriam-Webster dictionaries recognize this alternate spelling and condone its one syllable pronunciation (think “world”), making it the longest non-coined monosyllabic English word at 11 letters.


One who doesn’t indulge in excesses, especially food and drink; at 11 letters this is the longest word to use all five vowels in order exactly once.


A type of soil tiller, the longest non-coined palindromic word included in an English dictionary tallies nine letters. Detartrated, 11 letters, appears in some chemical glossaries, but is generally considered too arcane to qualify.

11. and 12. CWTCH, EUOUAE

The longest words to appear in a major dictionary comprised entirely of either vowels or consonants. A Cwtch, or crwth, is from the Welsh word for a hiding place. Euouae, a medieval musical term, is technically a mnemonic, but has been accepted as a word in itself. 

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The Grammar Rules of 3 Commonly Disparaged Dialects 
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Linguists are always taken aback by the overwhelmingly negative and sometimes virulently expressed reaction they get when stating something that every linguist believes (and linguists do not agree on everything!) in a rather uncomplicated way: Every dialect has a grammar.

"Every dialect has a grammar" does not mean "everything is relative, and let's throw away all the dictionaries, and no one should go to school anymore, and I should be able to wear a bath towel to a job interview if I damn well please." What it means is that all dialects, from the very fanciest to the ones held in lowest esteem, are rule-governed systems. Here are three examples from three different commonly disparaged dialects that illustrate how dialects have grammar.

1. Appalachian a-prefixing

One of the most noticeable features of Appalachian English, which has been studied extensively by the linguists Walt Wolfram and Donna Christian, is the a- prefix that attaches to verbs. When people want to mock "hick" speech, they often scatter a-prefixed words around like "a-goin'" and "a-huntin'" and "a-fishin'," but if they don't actually speak the dialect, they usually make mistakes. That is because they don't know the rules of where a-prefixing can apply, and where it can't.

Rules? Yes, rules. To someone who speaks an a-prefixing dialect this sounds right: "He was a-huntin'."

But these sound wrong:

He likes a-huntin'.
Those a-screamin' children didn't bother me.
He makes money by a-buildin' houses.

It is not the case that a-prefixes can attach to any old word ending in -ing. They can attach to verbs, as in the first example. But not to gerunds (a verb serving as a noun for a general action), adjectives, or objects of prepositions, as in the other examples. The fact that those examples sound wrong to dialect speakers shows that there are conditions on where a-prefixes can go. The fact that those conditions can be described in terms of verbs, gerunds, adjectives, and prepositions show that the conditions have to do with the linguistic structure of sentences. A condition that depends on linguistic structure is a rule. A system of these rules is a grammar. This is what linguists mean when they talk about the grammar of a dialect.

People who speak this dialect don't learn these rules from a book. They know them implicitly, even if they can't describe them, the same way you know "I gave him a dollar" sounds good but "I donated him a dollar" sounds bad (even if you've never heard of linguistic argument structure). Their use of the dialect is not whimsical and random, but governed by those rules. Someone who doesn't follow those rules, e.g., in a hamfisted attempt to mock the dialect, can be said to be speaking ungrammatical Appalachian English.

2. Southern American English "liketa"

Often features that are seen as sloppy pronunciations of Standard English show themselves on closer inspection to be used in a non-sloppy, highly consistent way—but according to a different set of rules. In the Alabama dialect studied by linguist Crawford Feagin, speakers say things like, "She liketa killed me!", meaning that she just about started to kill me, but didn't. This "liketa" is not just a shortening of "would have liked to"; it's also possible to say "I liketa had a heart attack."

"Liketa" is close to being a substitute for "almost," but it doesn't behave exactly like that word either; you can ask "did you almost die?" but not "did you liketa died?"

"Liketa" is not just a lazy version of Standard English. You can describe the conditions for its use—the rules of "liketa." As Feagin says, it "occurs in both positive and negative sentences, but not in questions and commands. It may co-occur with the intensifier 'just'; it always occurs in the past." Because rules govern "liketa," it is possible to break those rules, and if you do you can be said to be using it ungrammatically.

3. African-American English stressed "BIN"

African-American English has a number of distinguishing features, one of them being the use of "stressed BIN," described by linguist John Rickford. It carries the main stress of the sentence and is distinct from unstressed "been." It occurs in sentences like "she BIN married," which does not mean "she has been married." It means "she is married, and has been for a long time."

Stressed BIN is like a remote past tense, something that Standard English lacks a simple marker for. It can also be used in places where Standard "been" would not occur, such as "I BIN ate it" (I ate it a long time ago).

There are structural conditions on where stressed BIN can and cannot occur. Its use is governed by rules. As linguist Lisa Green points out, it can't be moved to the front of the sentence for questions (BIN John and Lisa dating?) or used in a tagged question at the end (She BIN married, binn't she?), and it can't be used with phrases indicating a specific time (I BIN asked him bout that three weeks ago). Because there are grammatical conditions for the use of stressed BIN, it is possible to use it the wrong way, as nearly everyone who tries to mock it does.

More explanations of these phenomena and others can be found at the Yale Grammatical Diversity project, the mission of which is to serve as "a crucial source of data for the development of theories of human linguistic knowledge." However you feel about dialects and whether they are worthy of respect, the fact that human ways of speaking always settle into rule-governed systems, all describable in terms of the same set of basic linguistic concepts—that, at the very least, is pretty darn interesting. And frankly, the more you pursue what's interesting about it, the less emotional your judgments about dialects become.

This post originally appeared in 2013.


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