UPDATED: California man creates short stories made up entirely of dictionary example sentences

A dictionary's a good place to find les mots justes. But a California man actually builds stories out of the example sentences that accompany the definitions in the New Oxford American Dictionary.
Jez Burrows is writing short stories made up entirely of dictionary example sentences. (Left: Jez Burrows, Right: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

When you look up a word in the dictionary, you'll find its definition, of course. And, depending on the dictionary, you might also find an example of how that word is used in a sentence. The sentence is often intended as a helpful exercise in understanding context. But, it's also sometimes surprisingly poetic.

When Jez Burrows reads example sentences, he feels inspired. He has started a blog where he posts short stories made up entirely of sentences from the New Oxford American Dictionary. It's called Dictionary Stories

Burrows came up with the idea when he was looking up a definition for the word "study."

"The example sentence that was given for that word in the dictionary was just incredibly melodramatic and seemed out of place," he tells As it Happens host Carol Off. "It really jumped out at me. It seemed like a piece of fiction that had gotten lost and ended up in the dictionary."

The example sentence: "He perched on the edge of the bed a study of confusion and misery."

Since reading that sentence, Burrows has been posting short stories on his blog. He put up his first one in mid-August and has since posted fourteen stories. 

"It's a lot of trolling through the dictionary blindly and cherry picking sentences that seem interesting or ones that might have some sort of narrative weight," he says.

Burrows says there are some sentences, however, that he doesn't think he'll ever be able to use in his stories. 

For the word "pebbles," the example sentences is: "If you think you've got it bad now, how would you like to be paid to collect pebbles."

Or, for the word "heavily," it reads: "The country is heavily dependent on banana exports."  

But, for Burrows, one of the most ridiculous phrase he has found so far is, "Gallons of fake blood." 

"You could have picked water. You could have literally picked anything," he says. "But, the lexicographers behind that thought that ... was the best."

To hear Burrows read one of his stories, listen to the interview above. 

UPDATE (September 11, 2015): We got to thinking: we do word stuff every day on As It Happens. How hard can it be to put together some of our own? Turns out: pretty hard. But, using example sentences from the Oxford Canadian Dictionary, we did manage to assemble a few.

The first is a nail-biting action tale entitled Driven to Tears

"Went for a pleasant drive. The car pulled hard up the hill. My stomach churned. The tires overheated and chunked. The road dropped southwards. The brakes failed to act. Stuck a finger in my eye. This makes the tenth time. Haven't got the feel of this car yet."

The second is a tale of the difficulty of communication in the modern age. It's called A Meeting With Eunice.

"I saw Eunice yesterday. Ten miles from Tuktoyaktuk. Felt in her purse for a loonie. Drew a vivid picture of moral decay. The colour rose in her cheeks. The poor soul was utterly confused. 'No more,' she puffed. Word is she's left town."

And finally, a brief romance in mostly sentence fragments, entitled The Definition of Love

"We talked far into the night. She had a youthful-sounding voice. Gentle hair care products. A sweater with a high neck. Kept on laughing. Looked me in the eyes. We alternated criticism with reassurance. So good as to exceed all hopes. We are now established in our new house. There's no telling what may happen." 

Send us your own dictionary stories by email, aih@cbc.ca, or Twitter. You can also comment below. 



To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.