8 Extraordinary Examples of Constrained Writing

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.

1. MANDATED VOCABULARY

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.

2. LIPOGRAM

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.

3. RHOPALISM

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.”

4. ABECEDARIUS

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.

5. PALINDROME

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.

6. TAUTOGRAM

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.

7. PANGRAM

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).

8. PILISH

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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The Curious Origins of 16 Common Phrases
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Our favorite basketball writer is ESPN's Zach Lowe. On his podcast, the conversation often takes detours into the origins of certain phrases. We compiled a list from Zach and added a few of our own, then sent them to language expert Arika Okrent. Where do these expressions come from anyway?

1. BY THE SAME TOKEN

Bus token? Game token? What kind of token is involved here? Token is a very old word, referring to something that’s a symbol or sign of something else. It could be a pat on the back as a token, or sign, of friendship, or a marked piece of lead that could be exchanged for money. It came to mean a fact or piece of evidence that could be used as proof. “By the same token” first meant, basically “those things you used to prove that can also be used to prove this.” It was later weakened into the expression that just says “these two things are somehow associated.”

2. GET ON A SOAPBOX

1944: A woman standing on a soapbox speaking into a mic
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The soapbox that people mount when they “get on a soapbox” is actually a soap box, or rather, one of the big crates that used to hold shipments of soap in the late 1800s. Would-be motivators of crowds would use them to stand on as makeshift podiums to make proclamations, speeches, or sales pitches. The soap box then became a metaphor for spontaneous speech making or getting on a roll about a favorite topic.

3. TOMFOOLERY

The notion of Tom fool goes a long way. It was the term for a foolish person as long ago as the Middle Ages (Thomas fatuus in Latin). Much in the way the names in the expression Tom, Dick, and Harry are used to mean “some generic guys,” Tom fool was the generic fool, with the added implication that he was a particularly absurd one. So the word tomfoolery suggested an incidence of foolishness that went a bit beyond mere foolery.

4. GO BANANAS

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The expression “go bananas” is slang, and the origin is a bit harder to pin down. It became popular in the 1950s, around the same time as “go ape,” so there may have been some association between apes, bananas, and crazy behavior. Also, banana is just a funny-sounding word. In the 1920s people said “banana oil!” to mean “nonsense!”

5. RUN OF THE MILL

If something is run of the mill, it’s average, ordinary, nothing special. But what does it have to do with milling? It most likely originally referred to a run from a textile mill. It’s the stuff that’s just been manufactured, before it’s been decorated or embellished. There were related phrases like “run of the mine,” for chunks of coal that hadn’t been sorted by size yet, and “run of the kiln,” for bricks as they came out without being sorted for quality yet.

6. READ THE RIOT ACT

The Law's Delay: Reading The Riot Act 1820
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When you read someone the riot act you give a stern warning, but what is it that you would you have been reading? The Riot Act was a British law passed in 1714 to prevent riots. It went into effect only when read aloud by an official. If too many people were gathering and looking ready for trouble, an officer would let them know that if they didn’t disperse, they would face punishment.

7. HANDS DOWN

Hands down comes from horse racing, where, if you’re way ahead of everyone else, you can relax your grip on the reins and let your hands down. When you win hands down, you win easily.

8. SILVER LINING

The silver lining is the optimistic part of what might otherwise be gloomy. The expression can be traced back directly to a line from Milton about a dark cloud revealing a silver lining, or halo of bright sun behind the gloom. The idea became part of literature and part of the culture, giving us the proverb “every cloud has a silver lining” in the mid-1800s.

9. HAVE YOUR WORK CUT OUT

The expression “you’ve got your work cut out for you” comes from tailoring. To do a big sewing job, all the pieces of fabric are cut out before they get sewn together. It seems like if your work has been cut for you, it should make job easier, but we don’t use the expression that way. The image is more that your task is well defined and ready to be tackled, but all the difficult parts are yours to get to. That big pile of cut-outs isn’t going to sew itself together!

10. THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE

A grapevine is a system of twisty tendrils going from cluster to cluster. The communication grapevine was first mentioned in 1850s, the telegraph era. Where the telegraph was a straight line of communication from one person to another, the “grapevine telegraph” was a message passed from person to person, with some likely twists along the way.

11. THE WHOLE SHEBANG

The earliest uses of shebang were during the Civil War era, referring to a hut, shed, or cluster of bushes where you’re staying. Some officers wrote home about “running the shebang,” meaning the encampment. The origin of the word is obscure, but because it also applied to a tavern or drinking place, it may go back to the Irish word shebeen for a ramshackle drinking establishment.

12. PUSH THE ENVELOPE

Pushing the envelope belongs to the modern era of the airplane. The “flight envelope” is a term from aeronautics meaning the boundary or limit of performance of a flight object. The envelope can be described in terms of mathematical curves based on things like speed, thrust, and atmosphere. You push it as far as you can in order to discover what the limits are. Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff brought the expression into wider use.

13. CAN’T HOLD A CANDLE

We say someone can’t hold a candle to someone else when their skills don’t even come close to being as good. In other words, that person isn’t even good enough to hold up a candle so that a talented person can see what they’re doing in order to work. Holding the candle to light a workspace would have been the job of an assistant, so it’s a way of saying not even fit to be the assistant, much less the artist.

14. THE ACID TEST

Most acids dissolve other metals much more quickly than gold, so using acid on a metallic substance became a way for gold prospectors to see if it contained gold. If you pass the acid test, you didn’t dissolve—you’re the real thing.

15. GO HAYWIRE

What kind of wire is haywire? Just what it says—a wire for baling hay. In addition to tying up bundles, haywire was used to fix and hold things together in a makeshift way, so a dumpy, patched-up place came to be referred to as “a hay-wire outfit.” It then became a term for any kind of malfunctioning thing. The fact that the wire itself got easily tangled when unspooled contributed to the “messed up” sense of the word.

16. CALLED ON THE CARPET

Carpet used to mean a thick cloth that could be placed in a range of places: on the floor, on the bed, on a table. The floor carpet is the one we use most now, so the image most people associate with this phrase is one where a servant or employee is called from plainer, carpetless room to the fancier, carpeted part of the house. But it actually goes back to the tablecloth meaning. When there was an issue up for discussion by some kind of official council it was “on the carpet.”

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From Snoopy to Shark Bait: The Top Slang Word in Each State
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There’s a minute, and then there’s a hot minute. Defined as “a longish amount of time,” this unit of time is familiar to Alabamians but may stir up confusion beyond the state’s borders.

It’s Louisianans, though, who feel the “most misunderstood,” according to the results of a survey regarding regional slang by PlayNJ. Of the Louisiana residents surveyed, 72 percent said their fellow Americans from other states—even neighboring ones—have a hard time grasping their lingo. Some learned the hard way that ordering a burger “dressed” (with lettuce, tomato, pickles, and mayo) isn’t universally understood, nor is the phrase “to pass a good time” (instead of “to have” a good time).

After surveying 2000 people (with proportional numbers from each state), PlayNJ created a map showing the top slang word in each state. Many are words that are unlikely to be understood beyond state lines, but others—like California’s bomb (something you really like) and New York’s deadass (to be completely serious)—have spread well beyond their respective borders thanks to memes and internet culture.

Hawaiians are also known for their distinctive slang words, with 71 percent reporting that words like shaka (hello) and poho (waste of time) are frequently misunderstood. Shark bait, one of the state’s more colorful terms, refers to tourists who are so pale that they attract sharks.

Check out the full list below and test your knowledge of regional slang words with PlayNJ’s online quiz.

A chart showing the top slang words in each state
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