In honor of it being back-to-school month, my next few posts will be all about words—two weeks of bliss for anyone out there who loves the English language. So, let’s get down to business. Or back to basics. Or whatever.

We all know that words are made up of letters. But I think we sometimes forget that they’re also made up of sounds. Let’s look at those sounds and why they matter. (Special thanks to Darcy Pattison, who first introduced me to the way sounds help create meaning.)

Today, we start with vowels. In English there are five vowels, right? A, e, i, o, and u.

Well, yes and no. There are five vowel letters. But in most English dialects there are 15 distinct vowel sounds. (The following list is entirely Kimberlee-centric; I included only those vowel sounds that I could distinguish as separate sounds, which is why only 13 are listed—I hear no difference in the sounds of “the” and “but” or of “cause” and “cop.” If you do, by all means, stick them back in!)

High Energy Vowels

  • long e (as in tree)
  • short i (as in sit)
  • long a (as in say)

These are high sounds, spoken in the top of the mouth, with the face pulled taut. Try it. Say those sounds. Feel where they are in your mouth, what your face does as you say them. Feel their energy.

Midrange Vowels

  • long i (as in glide)
  • short e (pen)
  • short a (cat)
  • oi (toy)
  • ow (cow)

These sounds are spoken in the middle of the mouth, with the face more relaxed. Go ahead. Say them. Feel where they are in your mouth, how your face relaxes as you go down that list.

Low Energy Vowels

  • short o (cop)
  • short u (but)
  • long o (bone)
  • short oo (book)
  • long oo (tooth)

These are low sounds, spoken in the bottom of the mouth with the face relaxed. One more time. Say them. Feel them in your mouth, your face.

Okay, so this is all very interesting (okay, so it’s only interesting if you’re a total word nerd like me, but I’ll assume if you’re reading this that you, in fact, are), but who cares? How does it affect one’s writing?

Let’s look at how knowing about vowel sounds and their effects on our physiology (and thus our psychology) can make our writing stronger. Here’s the original version of the first sentence of chapter four of my novel:

The autumn I was seventeen, the nightmares were particularly frequent.

This sentence starts off an intense chapter, in which the narrator is nearly scared out of her mind—but though the sentence tells us a few things (the narrator’s age, the time of year, and that she’s suffering from bad dreams), it’s not, ahem, particularly compelling.

So, I decided to use these vowel sounds to revise it. I wanted to use as many high energy vowels as I could. Right away that got rid of every word but seventeen and frequent.

Now, the most important word in the sentence is nightmare, but it doesn’t have any high-energy vowel sounds. The only synonym I could think of was dream—and while the long e sound contributes high energy, dream doesn’t have the same connotations as nightmare. To use dream, I needed a strong verb that would make clear what kind of dreams these are. I came up with plagued (long a!).

Then I toyed with the rest of the sentence, trying to give it a few more high-energy sounds (there are a total of seven; eight if you pronounce the autumn as thee autumn). The revised version reads:

In the autumn of my eighteenth year, the dreams plagued me.

How’s that for a whole lot stronger? And all I did was tinker with the vowel sounds! Woot!

Next up: how to use consonants to reinforce meaning.