Like so:

He worries – well, not worries, but laments a little – that he senses people don't read Henry James anymore

(sentence source: Monkey See, NPR Blogs )

I've used this style myself occasionally. But it really doesn't go well with the purist in me. It seems more like how the author would speak this sentence, not write it. If you were to correct something, why would you not just correct it in the first place and remove the error altogether?

One thought is that the author illustrates his flow of thought to the reader.


Correcting yourself in mid-sentence is not only grammatically and contextually fine, it is one of the classical rhetorical figures, called metanoia.

In his book Classical English Rhetoric, Ward Farnsworth defines it thus:

Metanoia (met-a-noi-a) means correcting onself; the speaker is, to take the old Greek name of the device literally, changing his mind about whatever has just been said. Of course it might seem more efficient to just say the thing right the first time, but metanoia can have attractive rhetorical consequences.

a. To stop and correct oneself usually is unexpected; it slightly disrupts the flow of a piece of writing or speech. The disruption attracts attention and gives emphasis to the revised claim.

b. The device allows the speaker to say something and then take it back, thus avoiding some responsibility for the utterance while still leaving it to linger with the listener; retracting a statement does not entirely erase the experience of hearing it.

c. Metanoia can have a mild persuasive value. The speaker may utter a less controversial claim, then revise it to make it stronger. This brings the reader along more gently than announcing the stronger claim on its own. Or conversely the stronger claim may be offered first but then reduced to something less ambitious that seems easy to accept by comparison.

d. Metanoia, like an aposiopesis, often creates the impression that the speaker is working out his words — that he is thinking, not just repeating something already thought out and polished. Sometimes the device more specifically suggests a conflict within the speaker. Different views or impulses audibly struggle for mastery.

e. Metanoia can create an impression of scrupulousness, as the speaker starts to say one thing but then feels obliged to take the initiative in correcting it. (It also can suggest overscrupulousness, as when the speaker fusses too much.)

  • 1
    +1 informative for the name and definition, wasn't aware that's what it was called. – Craig Sefton Apr 20 '11 at 11:35
  • Thanks for a comprehensive answer and a great book recommendation, too! – Kelly C Hess Apr 20 '11 at 14:29
  • Metanoi runs deep; into your life it will creep. – Malvolio Apr 20 '11 at 16:45
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    Wow, I'm blown away. Fabulous answer. I'm glad I asked it on Writers ! – 0xff0000 Apr 21 '11 at 4:19
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    this is probably - no, definitely - this is definitely the most useful thing I've learned today. – matt lohkamp Apr 22 '11 at 23:55

I think, in the right context, it's perfectly acceptable.

If you have a character telling the story, then the conversational style you refer to would probably be fine if it suits the character. It's personal, adds a bit of colour to the piece, and introduces an almost informal, friendly tone. Even if the author is the central narrator, it can work, but it depends on the overall style of the piece itself.

This type of style can also be used to demonstrate uncertainty or unreliability on the part of the narrator, which can be a useful device i.e. they're not sure about certain facts. However, I would say readers like certainty as they don't want to doubt the story, so you'd need to be cautious how you use this.

  • 2
    I was going to reply, but I realized everything I would have said was right here. – Adam Caverhill Apr 20 '11 at 8:29
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    Thanks for providing a couple of interesting use-cases. Fabulous stuff! – 0xff0000 Apr 21 '11 at 4:23
  • @hardik988 - No probs. And thanks for the great question, I learnt a lot from it. – Craig Sefton Apr 21 '11 at 8:43

Sometimes I will actually do this as a pointer for myself to go back and add more descriptive detail about that portion of the book. It's sort of like adding notes in the middle of your content. I'll do this when I am pressed for time and trying to work out a scene. It allows me to focus on getting the story laid out so that I can come back later and work out the specifics.

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