Whole lotta shruggin’ goin’ on: Observations on a most peculiar literary quirk

“Epithets, like pepper / Give zest to what you write; / And if you strew them sparely, / They whet the appetite: / But if you lay them on too thick, / You spoil the matter quite!”

Lewis Carroll, “Poeta fit, non Nascitur,” 1869

“A good style should show no signs of effort. What is written should seem a happy accident.”

W. Somerset Maugham, “The Summing Up,” 1938

Leave it to a linguist to obsess over the use of a single word…but, well, that’s what we do. I could write an entire article on the appearance and evolution of interjections like Duh! and meh, or new conversation-stoppers like what-ever (pronounced with falling intonation).

Besides, this single word, occurring over and over in a novel I was reading, started to detract from my enjoyment of the story; the most suspenseful thing was waiting for the next appearance of the word.

Necessary repetition and annoying repetition

Granted, some repetition is necessary, as when an element in a sentence refers to another item in the previous sentence. See previous paragraph for example (repetition of word). This, among other things, gives writing its coherence.

Some repetition seems to be necessary but is not. In fiction, the worst offender is said. Of course the person said it. The quotation marks and indentation tell you that. That’s why, instead of using said, the writer can use the opportunity to say something about HOW it was said or the nature of what was said.

Not this: “Never heard of him,” I said.
But this: I frowned. “ Never heard of him.” And it was the truth.

It’s possible to write an entire novel, full of dialog, without using said – and give the reader even more information instead of wasting words.

The particular literary style-marker in question, however, is something entirely different. It is the maddening repetition of a fairly unusual word (in conversation, at least) — shrugged. The only time I think of it is in connection with Ayn Rand’s novel, in which Atlas shrugs. I expect it to occur maybe 2-3 times, at most, in a novel.

Grain of sand

You don’t have to shrug all the time. The are many ways to describe bewilderment, confusion, apathy, lack of an answer, or anything else conveyed by a shrug.

Shrug after shrug, page after page, is acting like a grain of sand in my mental oyster. Perhaps we can surround it with a pearl of wisdom and gain some understanding of communication, editing, and style.

Everybody in this book (The Killing Floor by Lee Child, 1997) shrugs. As one amazon.com reviewer put it,

Holy ’shrugged’ batman. He must have said ’shrugged’ 300 times in this one. He shrugged, she shrugged, it shrugged….the gas station shrugged…the freaking birds in the trees shrugged. He should have named this one ’shrugging on the killing floor’. By the end of the book I could not get past it. It really was edited very poorly…too bad too, the book was very good, especially for a first time author.

Cool use of violence though. 3 stars.

I agree with this review (there were well over 300 reviews – the Internet has really motivated folks to write!). Readers argued over whether the plot was believable (no, but it’s a STORY) and the main character interesting.

I think he is. He’s a big, laconic, stoic Steven Segal/Vin Diesel/John Wayne-plus-martial-arts/black-ops-expert, a former MP major who, he tells us, has to be even better trained than the people he arrests, who are not ordinary criminals but commandos, Special Forces and other trained killers. I’m learning a lot about unarmed combat.

He reminds me of the Liam Neeson character in Taken: one tough MFer with a trick for every occasion and a dozen ways to kill you with his bare hands. He’s a big guy – 6’5” – and his size is relevant to all the fights he wins, so having 5’6” Tom Cruise play him (upcoming movie) is ludicrous. He has until now – and I’m sure this is true of many military families – never really seen the country of which he is a citizen. Life is one military base after another.

I’m also learning a lot about demolitions. A novel like this takes a tremendous amount of research.

Driving me nuts

But the shrugging is driving me nuts. I can’t help it – I’m a linguist – so I started counting them. I still like the plot, if only there weren’t so much shrugging. From p. 105 to p. 240, the word occurs 25 times, three times on pp. 239-40:

(1) Roscoe shrugged.
“That’s the U.S. motto, right?” she said. The Latin thing?”

Rewrite: Roscoe looked bewildered. “That’s the U.S. motto, right? The Latin thing?”

(2) “I doubt it, I said. “I don’t think Joe would make that kind of a mistake. It must mean something.”
Roscoe shrugged again.
“Doesn’t mean anything to me,” she said. “What else?”


Again, Roscoe was no help. “Doesn’t mean anything to me. What else?”

(3) Down in New Orleans [after the narrator makes a request], the fifteenth squad desk guy grunted and hung up. I shrugged at Roscoe and put the phone back on the nightstand.


I had no idea whether he’d reply. I gave Roscoe a who-knows? expression and put the phone back on the nightstand.

The style reveals the writer.

The subject of literary style has been studied for centuries. One of the first questions was: “Who wrote the Bible?” Investigation of this question, in the 18th century, may have been the first empirical inquiry of modern linguistics. Up to then, people had assumed that God or Moses wrote the Torah (i.e., the first five books, the so-called “Pentateuch” – but how could Moses write it when half of it takes place before he comes on the scene?).

It turns out that when we rule out God and Moses and actually look analytically at the text, we can find four different documents in the Torah; they’ve all been edited together into one text. Religious true believers continue to deny this, along with evolution. It was God or Moses, they insist.

But style is eminently describable…because producing any text, from Torah to email, involves a tangle of simultaneous decisions about capitalization, punctuation, spelling, the writing of dates and times, choice of word and idiom, arrangement of material into sentences for proper emphasis…the list goes on and on.

In the ancient Hebrew of the Torah, different writers from different times had different, describable, styles. The Book of Deuteronomy was pretty much the work of one author. But much mystery remains: who knows how much the Five Books, once composed, were edited before the first time we find them (among the Dead Sea Scrolls, 100 BCE, but not all edited together into a single document)?

What’s your style?

You may think you have no style of your own, but I assure you that you do, except in the small minority of cases where people can hide their individuality behind prefab phrases, as in much legal writing.

There’s a software tool that purports to tell you whose style yours resembles. The site is http://iwl.me/ . I don’t know what measurements they use. But the site told me I write like David Foster Wallace. Thanks, guys!

Usually an individual style is a complex of different usage patterns of various linguistic features. Never is an author’s style so blatantly marked by a single word, almost as a verbal tic. This is only the second time I’ve encountered it in over 25 years.

In the other case, I analyzed an anonymous communication that used the word puke as noun, verb, and general insult. Naturally a sample of the suspect’s writing contained the same quirk. So if I were to replicate Child’s writing style, I’d just use shrugged a lot.


But this violation of one of the basic rules of freshman comp…how does this happen in a published novel that goes through endless supposedly professional editings? OK, maybe not endless. I’ve bailed out on books because there wasn’t enough editing or the editor did a slap-dash job, and I wind up editing every other sentence. I stopped reading Michael Crichton, Robin Cook, and several others, even though their stories were good.

Some really crappy writing gets out there: awkward sentences with redundant words and extraneous description or background, just for starters. And does every woman have to be beautiful? And don’t show off your fancy vocabulary by making every sentence a work of metaphoric art. Just tell the story.

Stephen King is an author who’s all over the map, style-wise. He’s written gripping, straight-ahead stories like Salem’s Lot, Pet Sematary, The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption, Misery (only book that ever kept me up at night), Dolores Claiborne, and Thinner. The Running Man and The Long Walk foretold The Hunger Games. Rage was eerily prophetic of the horrific high school shootings of recent years.

Maybe he had a good editor, or maybe, since he’s a big star, he has, for some books, none at all. I’ve bailed out on his novels when they become self-indulgent streams of consciousness, the plot takes forever to get anywhere, boring things happen to boring people (Bag of Bones, Insomnia), and King is determined to show us how many pop and folk songs he knows.

His latest – an alternate history involving the Kennedy assassination — is a tour de force, requiring voluminous research. A little heavy on the nostalgia – the 50s weren’t the Norman Rockwell paradise he imagines – but a minimum of self-indulgence. And no stylistic quirks.

But what are we to make of 25 shrugs in 104 pages? One of the immutable principles of good writing is “Avoid unnecessary repetition.”

(Note: Nowadays we have to write so that SEO machines can find us, and that means lots of repetition. I HATE the fact that machines can tell people how to write!)

Did NOBODY pick up on this infuriating repetition? Style should be transparent, subordinate to plot and character. The reader shouldn’t even notice it.


The editor of record, as noted on the acknowledgments page, is David Highfill – who, Google tells us, is now an executive editor at William Morrow. He’s a big shot whose name generates hundreds of thousands of hits. Maybe he’s gotten a lot better since 1997. Did he simply not edit part of the book?

Now the text seems a mystery (if you’re a linguistics nerd), especially in light of how much shrugging there is in the rest of the book: pp. 215, 226 (twice), 227, 229, 231, 235, 236, 239; from 240-310, not once does anyone shrug (evidence of another editor?); then 311 (twice), 333, 350 (twice), 351 (twice), 355, 356, 364 (twice), 367, 371, 378, 379, 381 (twice), 382. The word doesn’t occur at all in the last 24 pages. Again, maybe another editor reviewed it.

If Highfill did indeed edit this entire novel, he was out to lunch. I cannot understand how such lousy writing gets into print. Highfill’s ascending career suggests that mediocrity is not a barrier to success in the publishing (or probably in any) industry.

I feel like an entomologist who’s discovered an isolated species of spider with nine legs. In all my years of reading hundreds of books and articles and examining and analyzing thousands of texts, I’ve never seen anything like this.

It may be a tribute to boss-ocracy: the Big Chief Editor liked it and, like many of the amazon reviewers, wasn’t bothered by the repetition. Not everybody is equally sensitive to language.

I spent a few minutes googling “Lee Child shrugged” and found only two or three references to it. So that’s another reason why a stylistic monstrosity – so annoying that it actually detracts from an otherwise good book — is allowed to fester and grow: nobody expects better. Well, I expect better.


A hundred pages of dialogue (and plot) and 25 shrugs? Did not the lowest copy editor notice – and if so, was he/she afraid to find fault with something the Big Boss or the Best-Selling Author liked? That’s a typical way in which incompetence prevails: the boss likes the idea.

I kept reading, if only to count the remaining shrugs and get more info on how to disable someone with one blow. Also, in the plot, something big was about to come down, the knowledge of which leads to the ghastly murder of anyone who reveals it.


I’ve finished the book and won’t give away the Heinous Crime. Someone asked me if I’d ever consider reading another book by Child. I just shrugged.