The Grammarphobia Blog

A one-dimensional character?

Q: A book review in the New York Times referred to the characters as one-dimensional. If my memory of high school physics serves me correctly, all physical objects have three dimensions: length, width, and depth. If a book reviewer wants to suggest a lack of depth, shouldn’t he refer to a character as two-dimensional? Please answer before I worry myself into the fourth dimension.

A: When I was an editor at the New York Times Book Review, there were certain clichés that we tried to keep out of reviews: “rite of passage,” “richly woven tapestry,” “stunning debut,” “shock of recognition,” “keen ear for dialogue,” “keen eye for detail,” “sense of place,” and so on.

We should have also forbidden “one-dimensional character,” which deserves a place right alongside the other clichés above. Interestingly, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary consider “one-dimensional” a legitimate term meaning superficial or lacking depth. And the dictionaries say the word “dimension” can be used in a non-scientific sense to mean aspect or quality or trait. Nevertheless, I don’t think a cliché like “one-dimensional” belongs in a book review—unless perhaps the subject is Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man.