What did you mean to say?


Words are funny things. Combined into phrases, they can be fickle, and often subtly (or bluntly) imply meanings the writer never intended. A slight shift in a phrase can completely alter the interpretation of the sentence. Even the arrangement of sentences in relation to each other can create unintended messages.

Finding and fixing such sentences tends to required a subtle application of wordsmithing–especially when the implication incorporates several sentences. During an early draft of Grave Witch, I unintentionally implied that my main character would end up having sex if she didn’t leave a bar. Luckily, I ‘heard’ the mistake when I read the chapter aloud at critique. (Which led to about five minutes of giggling and jokes at Alex’s expense.) This implied meaning built up over several paragraphs–paragraphs I’d read during edits several times before but didn’t spot until I read them aloud. I ended up keeping all the sentences involved, but reordered them into an arrangement that removed the unintentional implication.

An example of a single word that can become dodgy is the word “jerk.” The word can describe a movement or it can be used as slang for an obnoxious and irritating individual. Context informs us of which meaning is implied, but sometimes our perception of a word can shift slightly, making for rather funny results. Take the sentence, “A little jerk opened the door.” Okay, obviously what is being said is that a character is very quickly tugging open the door, but years ago, when reading that sentence aloud, I suddenly imagined a small obnoxious person walking in front of the character and being the one to open the door. I then tried to just rearrange the words. How about “I opened the door with a quick jerk.” Oh, now you’re manhandling the obnoxious person and he’s quick. Maybe it was stress, but the critique session had to take a break because everyone was laughing so hard, and over a stupid, insignificant sentence. It’s been nearly five years and I still can’t look at the word jerk the same–sort of like those double images where you look at it one way and it’s an old woman and you look at it another it’s a young girl. Once you see the second image, it is often hard to see the first again.

Sometimes the unintended message isn’t built up over paragraphs or involve dodgy words, sometimes it happens due to poorly constructed sentences. Last year I spent a couple months teaching hoop dance to kids in afterschool programs. This also corresponded with several hooping performances in which I did some crazy stuff with my hair–like braid in brilliant extensions. These extensions took several hours to do and lasted for weeks, but when we first started teaching the kids, I asked my co-instructor,  “Do you think it’s appropriate to teach kids with blue and yellow hair?” Well, uh, it would be rather inappropriate to discriminate against a kid with dyed hair. What I meant was: “Do you think it’s appropriate for me to have blue and yellow hair while teaching kids?

Big difference.

Now, my friend understood the first question. She  realized I was talking about my own hair and if I hadn’t stopped and backed up after I realized  what I’d said, she probably never would have thought twice about it because I was standing there with crazy hair and it was obvious I was talking about myself. If I put that same line in a book,  most people would also understand because it would (hopefully) be within a context that the meaning would be clear. But, it didn’t say what I meant.

There are plenty of other examples of sentences that don’t say what the author intended. Some simple, such as in the first draft of my upcoming release, Grave Witch, I wrote that people ran into buildings (ouch) instead of inside. Other issues are much more complex and fixing the unintended meaning requires a rearrangement or the complete rewriting of several sentences or paragraphs. Unfortunately, because we know what our words are supposed to say, these slippery words and phrases are often hard to spot in our own work. I wish I had some advice that would guarantee a writer could find these dodgy sentences, but like with so much else, the best advice I can give is to let a manuscript sit before tackling the edit so you look at it with fresh eyes, to have a good critique group or partner, and/or to read your work aloud because you will often ‘hear’  issues that your eyes simply skim over.

[And speaking of works read aloud, I want to give a quick shout out about AJ’s new audio book, MACBETH: A NOVEL read by Alan Cumming. It was released on Audible today. Congrats, AJ! I can’t wait to listen to it. Okay, back to the post now. ^_^]
Words are fun. They are fun to twist and to play with. But at the end of the day, make sure they say what you want them to say. Anyone else have any amusing accounts of unintentional constructions showing up in your writing?



14 comments to What did you mean to say?

  • Kalayna> Great post! One I’ll keep in mind as I’m doing edits later next month. Right now I’m writing, and while I try to catch them as I go, these kind of mistakes are harder for me to catch in drafting than in edits. I see a lot of “I know what you mean, but that isn’t what you’ve said” in my student essays. I’ve mentioned this one before, but it is such a great example. (It is also an example of why I don’t ask my students to write personal essays). One very sincere student wrote about loosing her virginity. I couldn’t help but imagine it running free over clover-covered hills somewhere. I laughed for quite a while, thankfully not in front of the student. But it is an example I use with my students now just so they’ll remember the difference. And, hey, I get it. The double “oo” sound is how “lose” sounds like it should be spelled.

    In my own work, when I find stuff that doesn’t make sense, it is often a prepositional phrase that I can’t get to modify what I want it to modify. Usually it means I’ve got too many prepositional phrases in the sentence, and I should just cut one (or more) of them. Like “he stood in the room near the vase.” Now it looks like the room is near the vase, not the man, and it’s all wrong. 🙂

  • Thanks for the chuckle, Kalayna. I had one of these just the other day, and for the life of me I can’t remember now what it was exactly. But at the time it made me laugh. But I thought I would add that we can also use these misunderstandings to add some humor to our books, as long as we do so judiciously and don’t overdo it. There was a moment in the ROBIN HOOD script (put in by the screenwriters — it wasn’t my idea, unfortunately) where Marion is speaking to Robin of her husband (who was killed in the Crusades). She says that they had to rush their marriage before he was called back into service by King Richard. They were married one evening and he rode to war the following morning. Robin says, “A good knight.” And she replies, hearing “A good night,” and meaning something entirely different, “Oh yes, short, but oh so sweet…” It’s a great moment in the movie.

  • There’s always a bit of disconnect between what’s in a writer’s head and what’s on the page. When it comes out in these funny ways, all we can do is laugh (and correct the error) — unless it isn’t caught until it’s published. Then all we can do is cry. Thanks for the post, Kalayna.

  • Thanks for the post and shout out, K. I’m excited to hear what people think of the adaptation. Cumming’s reading is superb.

    I had a similar moment while I was writing yesterday when I realized that the sentence had grown too long and the modifier at the end now seemed to apply to the wrong bit. I broke it up and attained the clarity we long for 🙂

  • LOL, What an image, pea_faerie. As far as the prepositional phrases, I know exactly what you mean. Those can be tricky!

    Thanks David! Sounds like a very cute scene!

    Agreed Stuart. while we laugh when we find one of these in a draft, it definitely becomes cringe-worthy if it makes it to print.

    No problem AJ! I’m super excited about the audio book. I purchased mine this morning. I hope to listen to it soon. ^_^

  • Unicorn

    I was riffling through my letters to a friend this morning and came across a passage regarding our preparations for a cattle show: “… and the humans still need to be trained, and they need to be bathed and clipped (the calves that is, not the humans)…” I giggled over that one.
    At one stage, a few years ago, I wrote a story about a bunch of peasants attempting to overthrow the tyrant (a cliche, I know) and for weeks I had to listen to “The peasants are revolting! Yes they are, rather,” which isn’t half as funny the fiftieth time as it is the first time.
    Thanks for the laugh and the post, Kalayna. I have visions of galloping off on horseback to a secluded spot where no one will laugh as I read my novel aloud to myself and the long-suffering horse…

  • Fun stuff, K. I got a vital lesson in a similar vein last night, except that it was about assuming certain things were implied, when they were not. My oldest daughter had been given a set of chores to do and hadn’t been doing them in a timely fashion. I told her if they weren’t done by the end of the day, she would be grounded from some of her favorite activities. What I MEANT was that she would be grounded until she completed the tasks, and then she would be free to pursue them again. What she HEARD was that she would be grounded for the rest of the summer, so she did what any teenage girl would do in those circumstance, she pitched a major fit. It wasn’t until we talked it through that we understood where the disconnect was, at which point she went right back to her normal sweet self, saying, “Oh, why didn’t you say so?” It was only amusing because we resolved it in five minutes, but it could easily have turned into a long, ugly episode. All for lack of a few words, and my assumption that my implied meaning would be abundantly clear. Oops.

  • Good post. It’ll give me something to think about when I re-re-re-revise my current WIP (ok, that was both a stutter and an indication that I’ve revised a bunch already. See…I do it too 🙂

    I do love it when writers succeed in doing this multiple-meaning thing well. For humor. I remember I first noticed this in the cartoon ‘Animaniacs.'[ Digestible for kids, but the double meaning for adults had me rolling on the floor.

  • Mikaela

    English is my second language, and most of the time I handles it fine. Sometimes, I write things that is confusing, though.
    Like this: Sherezade dipped a linen strip in the water and started to bandage her wrist. A sigh slipped from her when she felt the cool linen against the bruised ankle.
    Which makes sense from a swedish perspective,since vrist and ankel is synonyms to each other. It gets very confusing in English, though :D.

  • Kalayna, my (our) editor left a *giggles* note in the margin once when I didn’t catch something vital. And while I am happy to make her laugh, I did feel stupid.

  • So I’m doing a big overhaul on my first contest entry (to send out by the end of the month) and was going through and removing passive sentences form my story left and right… and then when i was reading it out loud to my boyfriend I realized that two sentences really needed each other (so much that they probably shouldn’t be separated by a period):

    When we got back to the clearing, other guards loaded the injured onto stretchers. The dead bodies moved somewhere else.

    But this isn’t a story about zombies.

    So now it is The dead bodies had been moved somewhere else.

    I still have giggle fits over it though

  • Finding and correcting these slippery little buggers in narrative is essential, but they can be used to great effect in dialog. We humans often (as Edmund pointed out) fail to communicate what we mean when speaking. These disconnects in communication can be used to heighten tension (What? Grounded for the summer? Not FAIR!) or ease tension (Good knight?) in any given scene.

  • Wayne McCalla

    Great post, Kalayna! I have the same problem… Not in writing but just trying to speak sometimes… 😉 Always saying wrong things at wrong time…

  • Unicorn

    Wayne – I also have a tendency to say the wrong things. I call it Foot in Mouth Disease. 🙂
    Roxanne – Terry Pratchett is excellent at putting an extra spin on a word or phrase. “Lend me a hand” became quite gruesome…