The Number of Syllables in a Novel’s Title: How Vital?

Blue MoonAfter reading Lee Child’s latest Jack Reacher novel last week, I thought about how page-turning that series is and how it reflects our times. Heck, there’s an amazing/harrowing “fake news” reference near the end of that recent book, which chronicles Reacher’s battle against rival mobs that ruthlessly control a city.

I also thought about the novel’s title — Blue Moon — and how there’s something very punchy about titles with two syllables, even though they can’t always convey much info. Five of the more than 20 other Reacher books also have two-syllable titles, as do…Jane Eyre! Kindred! Sula! White Teeth! Nana! Suttree! White Fang! Shogun! Ragtime! The Firm! (By Charlotte Bronte, Octavia E. Butler, Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, Emile Zola, Cormac McCarthy, Jack London, James Clavell, E.L. Doctorow, and John Grisham, respectively.)

Yes, short titles sometimes are the main character’s name, which makes a lot of sense for certain novels.

Anyway, I decided after finishing Blue Moon to go through the list of novels I’ve read or reread during the past 20 years (yes, I do keep a list πŸ™‚ ) to see how many had titles with one syllable, two syllables, three syllables, etc. Was there one syllabic category significantly more popular than the others?

Of course, this laborious exercise was totally unscientific and perhaps meaningless, but the memorability of a title — which can be partly affected by its number of syllables — might mean a little something.

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with one-syllable titles: 5. Among them: Rose (Martin Cruz Smith) and March (Geraldine Brooks).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with two-syllable titles: 82. Among them: See my second paragraph.

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with three-syllable titles: 139. Among them: Middlemarch (George Eliot), Persuasion (Jane Austen), Moby-Dick (Herman Melville), Empire Falls (Richard Russo), The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt), The Last Man (Mary Shelley), Brave New World (Aldous Huxley), The Huntress (Kate Quinn), Outlander (Diane Gabaldon), Still Alice (Lisa Genova), The Big Sleep (Raymond Chandler), Caravans (James Michener), and History (Elsa Morante).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with four-syllable titles: 158. Among them: The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck), Big Little Lies (Liane Moriarty), The Shell Seekers (Rosamunde Pilcher), So Much for That (Lionel Shriver), The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood), Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte), The Corrections (Jonathan Franzen), Light in August (William Faulkner), Fathers and Sons (Ivan Turgenev), and A Game of Thrones (George R.R. Martin).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with five-syllable titles: 148. Among them: Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky), Of Human Bondage (W. Somerset Maugham), Anne of Green Gables (L.M. Montgomery), The Woman in White (Wilkie Collins), Rubyfruit Jungle (Rita Mae Brown), The Captain’s Daughter (Alexander Pushkin), The Luminaries (Eleanor Catton), From a Buick 8 (Stephen King), and One for the Money (Janet Evanovich).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with six-syllable titles: 71. Among them: Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy), To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee), The House of the Spirits (Isabel Allende), The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver), The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton), Their Eyes Were Watching God (Zora Neale Hurston), Marjorie Morningstar (Herman Wouk), A Is for Alibi (Sue Grafton), and Devil in a Blue Dress (Walter Mosley).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with seven-syllable titles: 51. Among them: The Portrait of a Lady (Henry James), The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas), The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne Bronte), The Heart of Midlothian (Sir Walter Scott), Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury), Go Tell It On the Mountain (James Baldwin), The Accidental Tourist (Anne Tyler), and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (D.H. Lawrence).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with eight-syllable titles: 32. Among them: One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez), All Quiet on the Western Front (Erich Maria Remarque), The Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov), In the Time of the Butterflies (Julia Alvarez), The Temple of My Familiar (Alice Walker), Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (Jorge Amado), and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Stieg Larsson).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with nine-syllable titles: 11. Among them: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain) and A Confederacy of Dunces (John Kennedy Toole).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with 10-syllable titles: 10. Among them: The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax (Dorothy Gilman) and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe (Douglas Adams).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with 11-syllable titles: 2. Among them: The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (Charles Dickens).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with 12-syllable titles: 5. Among them: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (Fannie Flagg).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with 13-syllable titles: 2. Among them: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (J.K. Rowling).

The number of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years with 14-syllable titles: 1. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (Edgar Allan Poe).

Some conclusions: Four-, five-, and three-syllable titles were the most plentiful. I suppose titles of those lengths are short enough to be punchy but long enough to convey a decent amount of information and/or “turn a phrase.”

Also, while a good title of course helps, especially in cases where we don’t initially know an author’s work, it’s what’s in the novel that counts the most! Heck, when we know and love an author’s work, the title of their next book could be almost anything. πŸ™‚

How many syllables do the titles of your favorite novels have? Does the number of syllables in a book title matter to you? Anything else you’d like to say about this weird topic? πŸ™‚

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning β€œMontclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — which is partly about an awful presidential endorsement — is here.

65 thoughts on “The Number of Syllables in a Novel’s Title: How Vital?

  1. Hi Dave,

    It’s a shame that your post didn’t extend to 17 syllables, as I could have mentioned The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared which I recently read and very much enjoyed. Not the best book you’ll ever come across, but very quirky and a lot of fun.

    I can be quite fussy when it comes to books. Lots of books get four or even 4.5 stars, but there are very few books that I think are a perfect five. So what are the odds your paragraph about five-syllable titles would include so many five star books – Crime and Punishment, Of Human Bondage, Anne of Green Gables, The Woman in White, and The Luminaries.

    Thanks for this weird, but thought provoking topic, Dave. I’ve probably spent a few minutes thinking about the number of words in a title, but never the syllables. It’s been fun πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Susan! Wow — that title has a LOT of syllables. Most novels would need to combine a title with a verbose subtitle to match that. πŸ™‚

      Interesting that many of your “all star” novels have five-syllable titles! I love or near-love all five of those books!

      As I mentioned to another commenter, I initially thought I’d write a post on the number of words (rather than the number of syllables) in book titles. But something like “The Luminaries” (which I’m glad you recommended to me πŸ™‚ ) felt longer than a two-word title.

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  2. A friend of a friend wrote a little book titled “How to Turn a Million Dollars Into a Shoestring” 50+ years ago, and just now, it boasts the longest syllable count that comes to mind.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Lists!

    Wish I made them, and wish I kept them up, once started. Lately, I have read a few Donna Leone detective books, having read several over the years,and I am daunted, whenever I see the long list (there’s that word again!) of her works, by the certainty that I am uncertain, from the titles alone, of which of her books I have read or have yet to read. I’ve settled for the uncertainty of having read ‘most’, as I earlier settled when the author was Lee Child.

    Having too many books to see them all, I have found that, though the purchases were made years apart, more than once I’ve bought the same thing twice, intending each time to read it.

    Once.

    At least my tastes are consistent, except when they change.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! Yes, a list can come in handy when trying to avoid the inadvertent re-buying/rereading of books. Especially with those series, such as the Reacher one, with titles that can sound similar in a generic sort of way.

      “At least my tastes are consistent, except when they change” — ha ha! Great last line!

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  4. Some very interesting stats, Dave. I’m impressed that you’ve kept records of your reading for that long, I wish I would have started keeping a list sooner! I think I prefer shorter titles, as they are easier to remember and will grab my attention a bit faster, but a longer title wouldn’t sink a book for me. Interesting note, I’m more apt to turn away from a book if the summary is too long and wordy rather than if the title is weird. As for my own writing, most of my titles are on the shorter side, my most recent novel I’m working on has a one word, one syllable title! πŸ™‚ Can’t get much shorter than that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, M.B.! I started the list in 2000 after years of not having a list and lamenting that I didn’t. πŸ™‚ It’s a very low-tech list — I just write the titles longhand in an old calendar notebook I have. I’m on my laptop and phone enough!

      I hear you about shorter titles; I also tend to prefer them, with some exceptions. Your latest novel will have a one-word, one-syllable title? I’m impressed! I look forward to seeing what it is. πŸ™‚

      And, yes, a long/wordy summary can be counterproductive in drawing a potential reader’s interest.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Dave, I’ve been counting syllables of book titles in my head and on my fingers since reading your column the other day. I’ve always had an obsession with making lists in my head but never about counting syllables, so thanks for that, I think! πŸ™‚ Mostly I thought about one syllable titles. Of course, when I go browsing through a bookstore, I look first for author, and I agree that if I love an author, it doesn’t matter what the title is. I was once looking at a table in B&N of various new releases and picked up one entitled “Her” by Harriet Lane because I was intrigued by the title. It was most annoying that it turned out the ending cut off in the middle of a sentence, and so I didn’t know the resolution of a somewhat suspenseful thriller. However, here are a few of my favorite one-syllable novels: “Dune” (Frank Herbert) and “Them” (Joyce Carol Oates). I was quite fond of some of Albert Payson Terhune novels about the collies of Sunnybank Farm, e.g., “Wolf,” “Bruce,” and a two-syllable two-word “Gray Dawn.” I could also include “Lad,” although it was first published as “Lad: a Dog.” I was a big fan of the mystery novels of Dick Francis, whose books were generally one or two syllables, e.g., “Risk,” “Bolt,” “Nerve,” “Straight,” “Proof,” “Reflex,” “Whip Hand,” “Dead Cert,” etc. I think his longest titles were four syllables.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kat Lit! That’s a real treasure trove of many one-syllable and some two-syllable titles! I’m especially impressed with the number of short Dick Francis titles you mentioned.

      My favorite Albert Payson Terhune novel is his lesser-known, also-short-titled “His Dog.” (I think we might have discussed that book before.)

      I relate to your interest in list-making; I often make lists, too. πŸ™‚

      Like

  6. There will always be an interest in the statistics and patterns of writers and what those statistics and patterns reveal about each individual writer may be anything from blase to fascinating.

    An entertaining and revealing book about statistics from paragraphs to chapters to novels to titles is “Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing” by Ben Blatt.

    PS I went back to graduate school for Education Administration over the last few years and received my Principal license (from New Hampshire) and soon if everything is OK, I will be returning to China as an Assistant Principal.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Eric! Great to hear from you again! Congratulations on getting your principal license, and I hope you’re able to return to China soon!

      Wow — I didn’t know that Ben Blatt book existed. Sort of a contradiction mixing data and literature, yet it sounds really interesting! (One of the weird numbers I discovered when writing my 2017 literary-trivia book — which was mostly NOT numbers-oriented — was that Balzac’s parents were 18 and 50 when he was born and he died in 1850.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks, Dave. It was interesting to read how authors use or not use particular classes of words and how many writers use for each paragraph, sentence, and chapter.

        Liked by 1 person

          • Wonder how many contemporary authors have, consciously or otherwise, tailored their paragraphs to fit whole on a kindle page…

            (Bet ‘Absalom, Absalom!’ is a thorny, deep and endless thicket in that format, as it was merely nearly impenetrable on the printed page.)

            Liked by 1 person

  7. You’d certainly need alot of time to organize all of the books you’ve read into syllables. Thinking “It” by Stephen King (haven’t read) is intriguing just because title one word and one syllable. What is “It?” A person,an inanimate object, or maybe an emotion? Just title alone one syllable can get one thinking of wanting to read this book.

    Of course,easy answer for Donald Rumpy,miscreant..doesn’t read BOOKS so words,syllables in any context need not apply. Infer birds have more advanced a vocabulary ..tweet,tweet. 🐦

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Michele! “It” — which I haven’t read, either — is about as short and punchy a title as one can get! Plus, as you note, very intriguing if one didn’t know what that novel was about.

      Ha! (Your Trump remark.) That Twitter twerp definitely favors short words (like “wall”) along with some two-word phrases (like “fake news”).

      Liked by 1 person

  8. My predecessor at The Kansas City Star, the late Bill Vaughan, once wrote a book with this title: “Half the Battle,” a four-syllable one. Asked how he came up with that title, he said he told a friend he was having trouble deciding on a title and the guy replied, “Yes, a title is half the battle.” So he used that — no doubt without thinking of syllable numbers.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Very interesting, Dave. I’ve never thought about syllables in titles before and that’s an impressive survey you’ve taken. Though years ago, James A. Michener’s “Space” first popped into my head and his many other one word titles with varying syllables in their titles.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Jack! As you note, James Michener was definitely a king of one-word novel titles: “Alaska,” “Centennial,” “Hawaii,” “Mexico,” “Poland,” “Texas,” etc. And that one word was description enough. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Dave , something you write never crossed my mind, you are so observant into details.
    So how about the little sweet romance of Reacher ?
    I`ll be back and we have to wait until October for the next one.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Another innovative post, Dave! You have me thinking. Titles are the first draw, the enticement to open the book. So I had a look around at my bookshelves to see the books I have kept and found three that stood out- 1) Sisters in Arms 2) Liberty 3) Resistance. I am currently reading β€œBush Runner.” It seems that I like the titles that come in threes – three words or three syllables, – which reminds me of the β€œrule of three” in writing that suggests that a trio of events or characters attracts us. Perhaps that is why I like Nancy Drew and her two friends. Even more compelling is the symbolism that comes to mind when I read words like liberty, sisterhood, resistance. Another wonderful post and delightful conversation.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Clanmother! πŸ™‚ The titles you mentioned are indeed punchy and excellent; I see what you mean about the appeal of three syllables or three words. And symbolism in titles can be very powerful.

      Titles are indeed the first draw, at least in the case of authors we’ve never read before. If we know and love an author already, the title of their next novel might not be as crucial. But if we have mixed feelings about an author we’ve already read, the title of the next book of theirs could make a difference in whether or not we try that writer again. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 3 people

  12. Hahaha. Interesting trivia. But trivia aside, I did deliberately try to go short in the titles of my last two novels (Hippies; Goodbye Maggie). I do find that the short title leaves a quicker and deeper imprint on the reader’s mind (not to mention you can better read it from across the aisle at a bookstore πŸ™‚ ).

    Liked by 3 people

  13. I have to admit I’ve never really thought about this topic, except to note that some titles are “short” and some are “long.” One would think that short titles would be easier to remember, but I think they might actually be the opposite because they contain less information and tend to be rather vague. I’m currently reading a 3-syllable title, “Six of Crows” and continually have to look at the cover to see what it’s called:)

    Liked by 3 people

  14. I don’t have any deep thoughts on this, other than that titles should either be very punchy (e.g., β€œBlue Moon”) or should have some kind of symmetry (War and Peace) or some kind of rhyme or sound quality that makes them memorable (e.g., Anne of Green Gables, in which each of the main words repeats some of the sounds of the previous word).

    Liked by 3 people

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