Words and meaning

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I love words. I love the subtle differences between azure, cerulean and turquoise. I love the way words come together to paint a picture I can see behind my eyes. I love how sentences flow like the music of glittering water over stones. One of my favorite writing exercises is to open a dictionary to a random page, choose a word I’ve never read before, then try to write a story based on that word. I love language! Because of that love, I hate the way it’s misused in conversation, even when I do it myself. I try not to be rude about it, of course. If we’re talking, and you say something like “Me and him had went to the store to buy them apples”, I won’t say a word to correct you. My nerves will draw up into a tight, indignant tangle, and I’ll wince ever so slightly. I’ll keep it to myself – it’s not my place to correct you, who should already know better. In a conversation, I’ll forgive much. In writing, I won’t. If I can’t understand what you mean, we’re guaranteed not to communicate clearly. The point of language is to facilitate communication between people, and when the rules are ignored, comprehension is lost.

Reading is all about comprehension of the story, and writing is all about communicating the story in a comprehensible manner. I was reading a young adult book last night, and by the second chapter, I’d already grown tired of trying to figure out who was speaking at any given moment. The writer was leaping from one point of view to another within the same paragraph, forcing me, the reader, to stop and reread in the hope I could find where the change occurred. It was as if two people were talking to me at the same time, about two completely different subjects, and both wanting my full attention. I couldn’t concentrate on the story, and I eventually put the book aside. As writers, it’s part of our job to use the rules of language properly. Yes, books are edited once they’re out of our hands, but that doesn’t mean we have the right to expect the editor to clean up a sloppy mess. Part of honing the craft is learning how to manipulate grammar, how to communicate your ideas clearly so that the majority of your readers get your meaning.

Have you ever been at a writer’s group meeting or working with a beta reader and found yourself saying “what I meant was”? (Hands up, now, come on…. I’ve done it myself, so don’t be shy.) Sure you have. Every writer does it at some point. Maybe you became so immersed in your world it didn’t occur to you that everyone else wasn’t seeing what you saw, that they needed to be shown. Maybe you were being too subtle, or relying on a cultural reference that wasn’t as common as you assumed. One of the best rules I learned along the way is this – if it isn’t on the page, it isn’t in your story. What you meant has to appear on the page somewhere, somehow. In the same way that poor grammar limits understanding, leaving out the details of what you meant also limits understanding. So use your words, your wonderful, glorious words, and use them correctly. Follow the rules to tell me a story that will draw me in and never let me go until I turn the last page.

EDIT: Hey, at least I’m only wincing…Scalzi’s threatening you with a hammer! 😀

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7 comments to Words and meaning

  • This is one of the things I’ll specifically be asking my proofreaders to give me. If there’s any place where they think, “I don’t get this part,” or they say, “what did you mean here,” I’ll need to revise those sections, because if one or two of my proofers find it unclear, others will too.

    I have Dictionary.com (which is also thesaurus.com and reference.com) bookmarked on my computer and go there anytime I need a new word or need to find the true meaning of a word. It’s great for when I’m going, “I’m using this word too much, how can I say it in a different way!”

    Other things I’ll be asking them for are things that I may say too much that are actually jarring to the reading of the story. I have a feeling there’s possibly two words that may be said too much, but we’ll see. One is a curse, though not the usual slang we have nowadays, and the other is the word “likely,” which I’ve found myself using a lot lately in my speech.

  • Daniel said, Other things I’ll be asking them for are things that I may say too much that are actually jarring to the reading of the story.

    My characters used to shrug all the time. Once it was brought to my attention, I noticed that someone was shrugging on nearly every page!

    God bless proofreaders. 😀

  • Chris Branch

    Misty, I wince exactly the same way when I hear or read something like your “apples” example – however, if I think about it, I can’t justify my reaction based on the idea that comprehension is lost – in fact we have no problem understanding the meaning. So there is something else at work here that causes that nerve tangle in us.

    Now the shifting points of view in the same paragraph does indeed strain comprehension. Reading stuff like that actually gives me hope: if my competition hasn’t even got that basic rule down (and gets published anyway), then my writing ought to breeze right past those editors!

  • I’ve been dealing with issues of this sort recently with a friend of mine who is learning to write. He’s very good and shows a lot of promise, but t times he gets lazy with his prose. I’ve been trying to impress upon him the importance of using words — his most basic tools — correctly. If a musician plays something beautifully, but he doesn’t bother to tune the instrument, the song is going to sound terrible. If a writer has great ideas but uses his words poorly or incorrectly, the ideas will be lost.

  • Yep.
    And that was all I was going to say on the subject.
    But then I had to add…
    We Southerners (I put myself into this mix, of course) are the worst at mangling the English/American tongue. But that very misuse can create its own flavor of poetry, rich with hidden meanings and cultural depths and tension and pathos that I love to use as a writer. As long as I use it instead of letting it take me over and ruin the prose, “Hit ain’t so bad as some…” (grins)

  • Chris, granted that phrase was pretty easy, so how about this…I listen to Live365 at work, and lately they’ve been running recruitment ads for the CIA, the first line of which says “Have you always dreamed of a life of adventure and ambiguity?”

    I can safely say that I have never dreamed of a life of uncertainty and doubt, the definition of ‘ambiguity’ according to the Random House Dictionary in my library. I have, like many people, dreamed of a life of mystery and covert thrills, words which would have made sense in the ad. Sure I’m smart enough to guess what they meant, but they should have just said what they meant in the first place, and avoided making me wonder. 😀

  • Chris Branch

    Wow, I’ve never heard or seen a recruitment ad for the CIA. Maybe they don’t want Floridians. Anyway, I see what you mean, since I actually kind of like their use of the word “ambiguous” – I interpret it as a sort of dark inside joke: “Become a CIA agent (or maybe a double agent). Engage in patriotic (morally questionable) activities.” So I think their intention was to make you wonder – mission accomplished. 😉