The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

by Mark Haddon

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What language and style does Mark Haddon use in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time?

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In The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon uses short, simple declarative sentences to convey Christopher's habits of mind. The vocabulary is sometimes fairly sophisticated but the grammar is always perfectly straightforward. Christopher is very good at explanations and much of the book is dedicated to conveying information in a clear, didactic style.

Christopher tends to dislike figures of speech and other instances of verbal dexterity. He explains that he is not amused by jokes. He understands how they work on a technical level but does not enjoy them, since he experiences, for instance, the different meanings of words in a pun as dissonance "which is uncomfortable and confusing." He also dislikes metaphors, which he describes as lies, though he does sometimes use similes, since he points out that "a simile is not a lie, unless it is a bad simile."

Christopher's descriptions, particularly of other people's expressions and emotions, often make it clear that he does not understand what he is describing. When Siobhan shows him pictures of different facial expressions, he recognizes "sad" and "happy" but is unable to say what any of the others mean. It is a sign of Haddon's skill that he can convey to the reader what the people around Christopher are feeling, particularly in the case of his father, when Christopher does not understand it himself. This is achieved by making Christopher very precise in describing people's movements and reporting exactly what they say, as when his father confesses to having killed Wellington.

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Haddon uses the language that a bright autistic person might use to describe the world in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The chapters are numbered according to prime numbers as the narrator, Christopher, is a math whiz. Christopher is very good at noting factual details and patterns. For example, he notes that his neighbor's dog is killed at 7 minutes after midnight (page 1). He notes that Mr. Jeavons has 60 circles in each of his brown shoes (page 5). However, Christopher is unable to make sense of the emotions of the people around him. When his neighbor is yelling at him, for example, he says he cannot make sense of it. The style is idiosyncratic and reflects the way Christopher thinks and feels.

The language is generally simple, declarative sentences that tend to begin with "I" and contain a verb right after the subject. The language reflects the way in which Christopher sees the world, as he is far more certain of how he feels than the way in which other people feel.  

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In the book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, author Mark Haddon's writing style stands out because he intentionally employs many methods to develop Christopher's voice and characterization. Due to Haddon's writing style, the reader is able to understand the thought processes of a person with autism, like Christopher, which also helps to develop the theme of tolerance.

One aspect of the writing style that helps develop Christopher's voice and characterization is very simple syntax. Most sentences are written as simple sentences, which means they only consist of one independent clause; most of the simple sentences are also very short. However, periodically, Haddon will employ the use of a compound or complex sentence, as we can see by looking at the opening section of the book.

A compound sentence consists of two independent clauses joined by any conjunction (and, but, or, for, nor, so), such as in the following:

It had curly black fur, but when you got close you could see that the skin underneath the fur was a very pale yellow, like a chicken.

A complex sentence consists of one dependent clause and one independent clause, such as in the following:

Eight years ago, when I first met Siobhan, she showed me this picture.

The dominant use of simple sentences in the writing style helps to characterize Christopher as a very straightforward thinker. In addition, peppering the sentences with more complex sentences also helps the reader see that, though Christopher is a straightforward thinker, he is not a simple thinker with limited understanding.

A second aspect of the writing style concerns the use of repetition. Many words are repeated throughout, such as the word "dog" in the opening paragraph. Such repetition is often even created through parallelism, which occurs when a writer intentionally creates patterns in wording or grammar to express a point. We can see parallelism in the repetition of the phrase "the dog was" in the beginnings of both the two following sentences:

But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead.

The repetition of words helps show that Christopher is a very precise thinker. Many writers might substitute the word dog for the pronoun it, but doing so can create wording confusion. The avoidance of using the word it shows that Christopher has a very clear, focused understanding of exactly what he is speaking of.

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