Friday, 28 March 2008

There's more time than you think!

According to the AskOxford site research by Oxford Dictionaries has shown that 'time' is the most commonly used noun in the English language.

When I read this, I thought ‘Seriously?! More common than…’ and then failed to come up with a noun which I thought might be more commonly used. But it still didn’t seemd astonishingly likely, so I picked up the three handiest books (Boy A by Jonathan Trigell which I’ve just finished reading, World Without End by Ken Follett which I’ve just borrowed in order to read, Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks which I’m in the middle of) and checked. And yes, sure enough, ‘time’ was there on the first page of each book.

Yikes! How could I have failed to register its ubiquity? Perhaps my mind works v. differently to other writers? So, I fetched a copy of Testament – and there it wasn’t. Not in the Prologue, not on the first page of Chapter 1… but I did find it a third of the way down page 2 of the first chapter. So my mind only works a tiny bit differently, then. Like, more slowly. It clearly takes me a while to catch up to where the majority of writers get to on page 1.

Aha, but, does ‘times’ (as in ‘in these times’) count? – because that’s what three out of four of the quotations actually were. As in ‘so many times’ or ‘lost count of the times’, which feels a bit different to me to just the stand alone noun ‘time’.

It made me wonder: are novels, particularly, concerned with time and its passage? More than other writing, I mean?
I quickly flicked to the BBC News site’s front page and selected an article at random. Longer than any of the first pages of the novels I mentioned, the article (on Iraq) did not contain the word ‘time’. I did the same with an MSN front page article on the fiasco at Heathrow’s new Terminal 5 yesterday. No ‘time’.

So, novels – time obsessed?

The Oxford article quotes Einstein as saying ‘'The distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion, however persistent.' And that struck a chord with me. A lady at the writers’ group meeting I spoke to on Tuesday asked why I write split time novels rather than straightforward historical books (which she prefers). I drivelled something about being fascinated by the way history impacts on us now, rather than just what happened then. If I’d known the Einstein quote, maybe I’d just (pretentiously) have said that…

So, are novels particularly concerned with the illusion that the past is different from the present and the future? And, if so, is that why ‘time’ is such an often-used noun?

Answers on a postcard in the comments, please…


Tim Stretton said...

Hmmm..."times" appears on page 7, "time" on p11 of The Dog of the North. Yup, it's ubiquitous!

Lane said...

That's really surprising. So much so that I had to go and check. 120 times in my first twenty chapters and in the very first paragraph! Gulp:-)

KAREN said...

How strange!! Six times in my first two chapters. I would never have guessed. I suppose all novels are to do with the passage of time though, whereas articles are generally fixed in the present moment.

Akasha Savage said...

My first 'time' appears on page 2 of my MS.

David Isaak said...

In "Shock and Awe" I anaged to hold off until page two, but I make up for it by writing: "There’d been a time, a brief time, when..."

I ran the whole ms through the replace function. 260 occurances of "time" in 520 pages. Exactly one time for every two pages.

I'll be damned.

David Isaak said...

When I consult the printed version of my novel, there it is, twice on page 1.

That's really weird, Alis.

Leigh Russell said...

What an interesting observation! I just checked. The word 'time' appears 8 'times' in 1st 10 pages of my MS ... The commonest noun, (but as Einstein said, it's all relative...)