Jez Burrows creates short stories composed entirely of example sentences from the dictionary

26 August 2015

Designer and illustrator Jez Burrows’ latest project plays upon the lexical brilliance of the dictionary as he takes found sentences and builds stories out of them. “I just happened to be looking up some definitions in the dictionary when one of the example sentences really jumped out at me,” Jez explains. “It was for the word ‘study’, and the sentence read: ‘He perched on the edge of the bed, a study in confusion and misery.’ The language of dictionary definitions is all very plain and functional, so seeing this incredibly heavy and evocative sentence in amongst it all really struck me and seemed like the beginning of a short story.”

Jez decided to try and finish that story by using other example sentences. Since then he’s created a handful of ambiguously elegant vignettes that are now housed on their own website called Dictionary Stories. The unexpected pairings and collage of words feels almost poetic but there is a process behind each story. “Often I’ll find at least one [word] that makes a good jumping-off point and I’ll start to flesh out some sort of vague narrative, then work backwards to imagine what sort of words might give rise to the sentences I’m looking for,” explains Jez.

The stories feel oddly personal and resonate so beautifully because the concept is easy to explain. “Most people are familiar with the dictionary… so the stories feel accessible in a way that perhaps other short fiction might not,” says Jez. “Knowing the constraint behind it all means you can really see the guts of the thing on display.”

Collecting these sentences has become a slight addiction for the designer. “I have an enormous text file of hundreds of sentences that I think might go somewhere… I love seeing sentences which I swear can’t be used, then finding another that unlocks the potential for narrative. Although I’m not so sure I’ll ever be able to use ‘The country is heavily dependent on banana exports.’”


Jez Burrows: Dictionary Stories

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About the Author

Rebecca Fulleylove

Rebecca Fulleylove is a freelance writer and editor specialising in art, design and culture. She is also senior writer at Creative Review, having previously worked at Elephant, Google Arts & Culture, and It’s Nice That.

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