Category: Writing Techniques

Oulipo: Lipogram

Oulipo: Lipogram

Writing a text that omits one or letters of the alphabet. The most famous example is Perec's novel, A Void, where no e appears.

A lipogram (from Greek lipagrammatos, "missing letter") is a kind of constrained writing or word game consisting of writing paragraphs or longer works in which a particular letter or group of letters is missing, usually a common vowel, the most common in English being e (McArthur, 1992). A lipogram author avoiding e then only uses the 25 remaining letters of the alphabet.

An example of a lipogram omitting "e" is this version of the preceding paragraph:

A lipogram is a kind of writing with constraints that consists of full paragraphs or books in which a particular symbol, such as that fifth symbol (which is most common in writing), is missing. An author must submit to an awful handicap, allowing only consonants and A, I, O, U, and Y. This is ordinarily a quorum of six fours plus half of two.

Another example, this time challenging the reader to discover the oddity:

This is an unusual paragraph. I'm curious how quickly you can find out what is so unusual about it. It looks so plain you would think nothing was wrong with it! In fact, nothing is wrong with it! It is unusual though. Study it, and think about it, but you still may not find anything odd. But if you work at it a bit, you might find out! Try to do so without any coaching!

Writing a lipogram is a trivial task for uncommon letters like Z, J, or X, but it is much more difficult for common letters like E. Writing this way is impractical, as the author must omit many ordinary words, resulting in stilted-sounding text that can be difficult to understand. Well-written lipograms are rare.

Examples of lipograms include the above example, Ernest Vincent Wright's Gadsby (1939), and Georges Perec's novel A Void (La Disparition) (1969), all of which are missing the letter E (the most common letter in both French and English). Perec was one of a group of French authors called Oulipo who adopted a variety of constraints in their work. Gilbert Adair's English translation of La Disparition, titled A Void, stayed faithful to the spirit of the French original by not using the letter E either, thereby restricting the writer from employing such common English words as the and me.

Another recent example is Lost and Found by Andy Went.

Another recent example is Eunoia by Christian Bök in which each chapter is missing four of the five vowels. For example the fourth chapter does not contain the letters A, E, I or U. A typical sentence from this chapter is "Profs from Oxford show frosh who do post-docs how to gloss works of Wordsworth." Lipogrammatic writing which uses only one vowel is called univocalic (McArthur, 1992).

The eponymous cycle of poems from Cipher and Poverty (The Book of Nothing) by Canadian poet Mike Schertzer was created "by a prisoner whose world had been impoverished to a single utterance... who can find me here in this silence". The 4 vowels and 11 consonants of this utterance comprise the alphabet for the subsequent poems.

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn is described as a "progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable": the plot of the story deals with a small country which begins to outlaw the use of various letters, and as each letter is outlawed within the story, it is (basically) no longer used in the text of the novel. It is not purely lipogrammatic, however, because the outlawed letters do appear in the text proper from time to time (the characters being penalized with banishment for their use) and when the plot requires a search for pangram sentences, all twenty-six letters are obviously in use. Also, late in the text, the author begins using letters serving as homonyms for the omitted letters (i.e. "PH" in place of an "F", "G" in place of "C"), which some might argue is cheating.

In Sweden a form of lipogram was developed out of necessity at the Linköping University. Because files were shared and moved between computer platforms where the internal representation of the characters Å, Ä, Ö, å, ä, and ö were different, the tradition to write comments in source code without using those characters emerged. Some also used this as a pastime to write texts using this restriction.

Category: Creative Writing Techniques