Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Choosing the Right Word(s)

Sometimes we authors don't catch little mistakes in our books that can jerk a reader out of a story. That is one reason why books should really be professionally edited before being published, but sometimes even an editor does not catch everything.  For example, not too long ago I read the following in a published book, "He looked for the creak in his knees as he walked down the stairs."

Hmmm. How do you look for a sound? Maybe it's just me and I'm too literal minded, but that stopped me when I read it. I know writing is a creative endeavor and we can be clever with some word usage, but maybe we should not be mixing up words and coming out with a tossed salad.


Here are some other awkward or incorrect word usages that I hate to see in a finished book:
  • Each one worse than the next. That should be each one worse than the last. (Think about it.)
  • On accident. You can do something on purpose but not on accident.
  • He did good vs. He did well - Little Johnny plays soccer well. He is a good athlete. (Use well as an adverb, good as an adjective.)
  • Irregardless or regardless?  Regardless already means what most folks imply when they say irregardless. It means without regard. Using irregardless makes it a double negative.
    Another book I read not long ago had a sentence that caught me up short:

    "…who had been pacing agitated trails around the room." Does agitated work? I'm not sure. Maybe this is just literal-me being too picky again, but I have a hard time thinking of a trail being agitated. The trail left in carpeting by someone pacing is inanimate. It is the woman who is agitated.

    The following is something I heard on the nightly news, "A conveyer belt of storms is marching in." This was a meteorologist's attempt to cleverly describe a series of storms sweeping across the United States, and on one hand the description could almost work if you just focus on the image it creates. I could see a conveyer belt moving along, with storms lined up on it like bolts in a tool factory. But the more I looked at that mental image, the sillier it became. Was the odd use of the words worth it just to get people's attention?

    "She ran an irritated hand through her hair."

    My hands don't often get irritated, but I do, especially when I stumble over awkward word usage.

    On the other, less irritated hand, I do often find a little thing that is quite clever in word usage, and I thought I would end this on a positive note by sharing one.

    This is a quote from Getting Lucky by Bob Sanchez,  "You better start controlling that handle you keep flying off of." That may not be grammatically correct, but it is a nice way to flip a well-worn phrase. We are encouraged not to use clichés in our writing, but sometimes one works if you just mix it up a bit.

    Do you find awkward word usage distruptive to your reading pleasure? Do I need to just get over it? (smile) How do you flip cliches to make them fresh?


    Maryann Miller
    is a novelist, editor and sometimes actress. Her most recent release is Boxes For Beds, an historical mystery available as an e-book. Stalking Season is the second book in the Seasons Mystery Series. The first book, Open Season, is available 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. She tries her best not to disrupt the reading pleasure of those who pick up her books.

    26 comments :

    1. Deborah Turner HarrisJuly 31, 2013 at 1:08 AM

      When it comes to diction errors, one of my pet peeves is the use of "nauseous" (disgusting; correctly used to describe something that induces nausea - i.e., "a nauseous odor") when the word wanted is "nauseated' (to feel sick). I don't know how many times I've heard a TV presenter say something along the lines of "I guess he's feeling pretty nauseous right now." Argh!

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      1. I think broadcast journalists are getting worse and worse with word usage. Sometimes I laugh out loud and other times I just sigh.

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    2. One of mine is the incorrect use of "anxious" when the writer meant "eager." It makes me stop and linger to analyze why the character's anxiety is on the rise.

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      1. That is another one that bothers me, too. Among others. LOL

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    3. From some of your examples, it looks like some people make things worse when they try to avoid adverbs. As for "well/good"--when I was in college I was helping an Israeli friend with some of his English, and he told me in the classes he'd been taking, they told him "Well means goodly." I still use that as a handy hint.

      Terry
      Terry's Place

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    4. Got distracted by the dog--I was also going to add 'bemused' as a word people get wrong.

      Terry
      Terry's Place

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      1. As opposed to amused? I have not seen bemused very much, and really don't like the way it sounds. Does that ever happen to you where you just don't like a word? Albeit is another word that I don't like the sound of and it has become popular among writers.

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    5. When I read the part about "irregardless" (guilty, btw), I couldn't help but think of Dr. Nick Riviera on The Simpsons.

      "Inflammable means flammable? What a country!"

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      1. LOL. Thanks for the Simpsons quote. Good one.

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    6. If I could draw thumbs in this box, you'd have three thumbs up!

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    7. Deborah Turner Harris, I too am annoyed by "nauseous" instead of "nauseated". I always thought it was "nauseous color that made me feel nauseated" and "being in the same room with him was nauseating." I recently researched the topic. Apparently, some people have decided "nauseous" has been misused so often it is now considered correct! Nauseous and nauseating, and nauseous and nauseated can be used interchangeably (much as I disagree). :)

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    8. As we all know, language is organic and changes according to usage. In the past, when we read from paper and wrote using a pen, spoke in person to one another, such change happened almost imperceptibly. Today, with emails, texts and even professional reporters distorting language daily, the changes are happening too quickly for most of us to adapt. Language is a basic component of communication. If it changes the meanings of words too rapidly, then accurate communication will become impossible. How do we slow the changes? As writers, we have a duty to ensure that we avoid malapropism and, especially, mixed metaphor. I cannot count the times I have recently heard professional communicators describe a figurative response as 'literal'. That's the one that gets to me most.
      And that last example in this interesting post contains another of my most disliked conventions; the unnecessary 'of' the follows 'off'.

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      1. Thanks for the thoughtful response. You are so right about "literal" and about the last example. I almost didn't post the quote from the Sanchez book because of that awkward usage, but I really did like the clever twist of the cliche.

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    9. Boy, do I ever see this sort of thing all the time too! But what's most wonderful is when someone knows what he's doing, and breaks rules delightfully, like the Sanchez quote. Love this, Maryann!

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      1. Thanks so much, Susan. I do believe these kinds of mistakes are getting more common. And like Stuart said, improper usage becomes accepted once it is used enough. Too bad.

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    10. See ... this is exactly why I follow the BRP ... you make me aware of my foibles ... AND bust my chops when I stray from the CMOS ... which is all too frequent (or is that frequently)?

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      1. You always brighten my day with your pithy responses, Christopher. I do believe you do that frequently. :-)

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    11. Maryann, first of all, my fictional character Clay Webster thanks you for mentioning his story, Getting Lucky. Please keep in mind that fictional characters don't have to speak grammatically. The police chief who's quoted doesn't care about ending a sentence with a double preposition--in fact, how about ending with a trifecta: "Hey, what's your problem with off of about?"

      As for my own pet peeves, I have a whole menagerie--"most unique" is one. Equating enormity with size and mixing up peek/peak/pique turn me into a veritable curmudgeon.

      Finally, Terry mentioned well and good. That reminds me of a writer mentioning a missionary who began his career intending to do good but wound up doing well.

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      1. True, Bob. Characters do not have to speak correctly. Thanks for sharing the trifecta. LOL

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    12. Ooooh, ooooh, other bugaboos: lightning versus lightening. And using light year as a measure of time...

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      1. Thanks, Bob. I think we could mention hundreds of those kinds of mix-ups.

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    13. And, in a moment of synchronicity, today's Dictionary.com Word of the Day just happens to be "bemused."

      http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/bemused

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    14. I love using an unexpected twist to infuse new life into worn-out clichés. This seems to bridge the gap between that which is comfortable and familiar and that which appeals to modern readers who are looking for new ways to express themselves.

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      1. So true, Linda. Just because we all speak in cliches all the time doesn't mean we want to read them. I have had clients argue with me about the usage, saying that that is the way people talk. I know, but characters don't have to, which is why I liked Bob's usage. (smile)

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    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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