Friday, August 24, 2012

Say What You Mean

This month here at The Blood Red Pencil we've been looking at various aspects of language, and there have been some interesting posts on the use of slang, the clever use of made-up words, and the importance of using the right word in the right time period or for the right character.

In thinking about what I might contribute to this theme, I toyed with the idea of writing about the way journalists, especially broadcast journalists, fracture the English language. Some of the breaks are just funny bloopers, but others are mistakes that are more embarrassing than funny. For example when a commentator during the Olympics said, "He was a whole feet shy." Or another who said, "You've got to perform well to be able to medal."

Like we didn't know that?

I decided to go in a different direction, however, when I started reading a humorous book by Bill McCurry. Bring Us the Head of the Velveteen Rabbit  is filled with short, yet funny and insightful essays about all kinds of topics. His letter to the Thanksgiving Turkey is worth the price of the book, but it was the one about communication that made me decide I would write about how interpretations of what people say can vary. He titled this piece, Listen to What I Mean, Not What I Say, and, yes, it does focus on the differences between the way men and women communicate.

For example he makes the point that for him the word "couple" means 2. That's all, just 2. His wife, however, uses "couple" to mean anything from 2 to 5, which really is "a few." So he never knows exactly what she means.

"The challenge that my wife and I face is that when we fell in love the only thing that we had in common communication-wise was that we both spoke English. We often said the same thing and meant completely different things."

Hence the problem with the word "couple".

There are lots of jokes about these differences between men and women, but we writers need to take the issue seriously. When developing characters, we have to recognize and understand that men and women communicate on two different levels most of the time. I became aware of this when I was going through the final draft of a book I recently finished.  As I went through scenes and paid careful attention to each line of dialogue, I noticed that I didn't always have these differences distinct. I had some of the men talking in broad, general terms like the women, and I had to go back and rewrite the dialogue to make the men sound more like a guy who would say exactly what he means. "Two is just 2."

What about you? Have you had to go back and rewrite dialogue to make it more masculine or more feminine? Are there times to have a guy sound more feminine, or a woman more masculine, for characterization?
  Maryann Miller is a novelist, editor and sometimes actress. Her latest release is Open Season as an e-book for all devices. To check out her editing rates visit her website. When not working, Maryann likes to take her dog for a walk and work outside on her little ranch in East Texas. 

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  1. Maryann, when I'm writing dialogue for a female character, I often wonder where it is coming from ... and, more importantly, how authentic it sounds ... I've been told that is rings true ... guess being married to a female all these years has paid off.

  2. It does help to listen to our spouse - really listen. (smile)

  3. Love this post, Maryann. And it's so true. Writers all must really pay attention to what their characters are saying. And men and women really do speak different languages! LOL

  4. Oh, I must find that book! And yes, a couple is two. ;)

  5. Very interesting observations! It is so frustrating to talk to one's spouse, thinking you're being very clear, while the other is looking at you like you have two heads! And writing from the other's POV is more difficult, indeed.

  6. I think a couple is two, also. A pair. Where did this confusion first occur in language? "A couple of" is a noted deviation related to loose estimates like miles. Very odd.

  7. Very thought-provoking post, Maryann, so let's talk about "couple." A couple typically indicates two: husband and wife, two on a date, two children, etc. However, a couple minutes can be a bit more ambiguous.

    When I say a couple minutes, I mean very shortly. When my son says a couple minutes, he can mean anything from two minutes to half an hour or longer. Maybe it's not always a gender thing.

    On the other hand, the observation that men and women often fail to understand each other makes great grist for the writing mill. In fact, the conflict possibilities are almost endless, and this makes for fascinating and compelling stories.

  8. Interesting post. I tend to focus on the differences in male and female actions and reactions. I think I'll go back and take another look that the dialogue.

  9. And speaking of gender... it irritates me beyond irritation that this word is now applied to humans. Words have a gender. Humans have a sex. I'm not veering from that, dammit! ;)

  10. I submitted a chapter to a critiquing group and one participant told me my detective was too feminine. That was it, all he had to say. No example, no this is what he said and this is how he should have said it. I was irritated, it was a lazy review, and he probably had no idea of what he spoke (or that could just be my wrath speaking) but it made me aware that yes there is a difference and it should come through in the writing. So even a bad critique, by bad I mean lazy can actually make you think about what you've written, which is always a good thing. And as far as differences between men and women (my husband and I) -- don't get me started. :)

  11. Dani, your comment on gender vs. sex raises some interesting possibilities. I said, "Maybe it's not always a gender thing." To have said "maybe it's not always a sex thing" could lead to some…uh…misconceptions—or at least a raised eyebrow or two.

    Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, in its second definition of gender says: "the fact or condition of being a male or a female human being."

    This doesn't necessarily make its use in that context more acceptable to some, but it does make that use grammatically correct. Perhaps this is one of those things that contribute to a writer's style.

  12. Sometimes I think I'm saying what I mean and find out I'm really not!

    Morgan Mandel


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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