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? ”
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?