Category Archives: Words

Wordy Wisdom: Why We Love Our Living Language

Okay, I admit it.  I’ve been pretty harsh about words these last few weeks, and that’s not fair at all.  Words are wonderful.  Words are magical.  Words allow us to craft our thoughts, just so, and lead our readers on a path of thought, adventure, whimsy.  Finely crafted words invite us to trespass into other worlds for as long as our eyes are captured by the pages.

Let’s be honest.  We love words!

(Otherwise, you probably wouldn’t be reading this blog… )

So, enough of the lambasting of the poor unworthy adjectives and the literal things that aren’t literally literal (… actually, no, I’ll never give up in my fight against poorly used “literally”).  Let’s focus instead on well-crafted and well-used words.

First of all, after how twitchy Twain made us about those pesky adjectives and poorly placed adverbs, I think we need to call him out on how little credit he is giving to beautiful writing.   When I think of descriptive passages and the images they summon to the imagination, I think of George MacDonald’s Phantastes:

“The trees bathed their great heads in the waves of the morning, while their roots were planted deep in gloom; save where on the borders of the sunshine broke against their stems, or swept in long streams through their avenues, washing with brighter hue all the leaves over which it flowed; revealing the rich brown of the decayed leaves and fallen pine-cones, and the delicate greens of the long grasses and tiny forests of moss that covered the channel over which it passed in the motionless rivers of light.”

What I see.  What do you see?

What I see. What do you see?

 

Now, maybe we are all seeing different trees bathed in different light, different leaves and different moss. Does it matter?  Does it make the image that this passage conjures for each of us any less lovely?  Adjectives can easily become trite, meaningless, and overdone.  An adverb is more often excessive than a necessity.  However, in the right place at the right time, we can use words to transform a wisp of an idea into an image that is almost tangible, and there is something eminently satisfying in the product.

Furthermore, as readers, we have the privilege more often than we realize to appreciate the wordsmithing of others, their images and ideas unfolding before us.  We make the images our own and so both share them with their creator and adopt them into our own library of treasured thoughts and stories.  This is the constant and endless delight of the reader, an abundance of words transformed into an infinite store of impressions.

The wonderful thing about words is that, while we do submit to their meanings on the one hand and allow them to create a picture for us when we approach them, we are on the other hand and in another way their masters.  We are the creators of the words themselves and we are allotted some of the responsibility of giving them meaning.

Sometimes this goes horridly awry, and more than one stuffy wordophile (I don’t exclude myself from this category, by any means) turns a nose up at such travesties as ain’t and irregardless and… you were waiting for this one… literally.  Words that aren’t words or shouldn’t be words or aren’t being used the way they should be used – we gaze in most respectable and erudite horror upon these little gremlins of our language and try (uselessly, alas) to squish them the way Twain squishes adverbs.  Of course, he didn’t have very much success either (Do you see those adverbs I just used, Twain?  And I’m not even sorry).

But there are two things that we must remember, no matter how stuffy we are or how much we love to preserve our sacred, lovely, beautiful vocabulary just as it is.

First, for a language to be alive, it must be allowed to grow, change, and flourish.  Now, I do still firmly believe that trimming little, rogue branches is in the tree of la langue‘s best interests.  We should definitely discourage the words that are senseless and correct mistakes as they come our way (in the nicest way possible so that our friends don’t start apologizing every time they write anything they know we’ll see… Not that this ever happens to me).   However, aside from the words that just plain shouldn’t be allowed, there are new words and new meanings that are always springing up, and I think that we might approach these with more fascination and excitement than gloomy discouragement.  Our language is still alive!  It is growing!  Our culture, one generation after another, is exploring and creating and inventing new words and new meanings as our world continues to change.

And some words are just fun to say, aren't they?

And some words are just fun to say, aren’t they?

 

Take for example a word that is quite appropriate for this post: text.  A word that means words, born of the idea of a substance, like textiles, something you can touch and feel and hold in your hand.  Something solid.  In our technological age, text has changed.  We might become a bit nostalgic about it, but we might also see the magic in it.  Text has grown and expanded, still attached to the page, but also floating off of and away from it, a collection of thoughts sent invisibly (magically, as far as I’m concerned) from one device to another.  It’s not just a thing anymore.  It’s an action.  I can text someone.  Let’s set aside the usual bemoaning of what the digital age has done to our youth’s perspective of the written word (a worthy subject for another day) and just contemplate how many ideas are being sent in all directions all the time.  Because text has changed.

The second thing that we must remember about words is that we are not passive onlookers.  We are a part of our culture’s language, and we participate in its lively evolution.  Words don’t magically appear; someone starts the process.  Shakespeare is responsible for the use of a massive number of words in the English language.  We can go into a zany rant about a bedazzled arch-villain because Shakespeare was awesome and creative (short story idea, just in case someone wants it).  We chortle and gallumph because Lewis Carroll wrote nonsense that just might make sense.  Words are fun, and while I sometimes like to say that only Masters of English should be allowed the privilege of adding to our vocabulary (I told you I was a stuffy elitist), the fact is, if you write it, text it, say it, or share it, and someone else loves it and passes it on, a new word or meaning can very easily be born.

So to end this month’s long-winded, wordy exploration of reading, writing, and the words we use, I want to know what you think of words.  What is your favorite word to say?  What word do you love for its meaning, origins, or impact?  What fabulous word do you think should be added to our vocabulary?  Maybe we can spread a new one and make our language grow a little more (something to replace literally as an intensifying adverb, perhaps?  Please, I beg of you!)

* * *

Previous Bits of Wordy Wisdom:

Too Much of a Good Thing

Very, Very Verbose

I Literally Died!

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Wordy Wisdom: I Literally Died!

Congratulations to all of you!  If you are reading this, it means you survived not only the Ides of March, but the Day of the Leprechaun.  That is no small feat.

Our exploration of wordiness continues.  This week, we are going to focus on a wordy sin that is not mine, but is one that I notice in others.  I notice it constantly and I judge.  So, here it is:

I literally hate the word “literally.”

First of all, let’s ponder the above sentence.  If I hate the word, what is the point of emphasizing that my hatred is literal?  What other kind of hatred is there?  Let’s also note that “literally” is an adverb, and as we all know, adverbs are not to be trusted unless they prove themselves useful.

I will give you a hint about this one: Literally is almost never useful.

WhenLiterallyReallyMeansLITERALLY-73138We should first talk about what “literally” means, because that seems to be an issue.  When we define something as being said or done “literally”, we are telling our readers or listeners that something is real, actual, or true.  If something is literal, it is not figurative or imagined.

The word “literally” is meant to be used as an understood contrast.  We are making a distinction so that the reader/listener knows that something we might normally think is not real, is in this case real.  This meaning has been lost, sadly, in favor of another.  Instead of meaning that something is actual as opposed to figurative, “literally” now means “oh my gosh, like, seriously!”  And it literally makes me want to scream (but I restrain myself).

For example:

  • “You have to watch this video I saw on YouTube!  I literally died!”
  • “I literally want to kill people who can’t park.  It’s so annoying!”
  • “I was literally lost for an hour before I found my classroom!”

Our first sentence is something one of my students said to me a few weeks ago.  I’m not sure whether I was more concerned that a dead student was sitting in my classroom or that she was callously suggesting that I watch the same video which had done her in.  Ironically, what she means by “literally” here is “figuratively.”  So, it seems that “literally” now means the opposite of “literally.”

In our second statement, we have a psychopath who has violent tendencies toward untalented drivers.  Most of us have probably experienced some degree of road rage, but we can only hope that our desire to kill is not literal.  Or, if it is, that we are not given the chance to carry it out.  The number of people who have the literal urge to kill worries me.

Our final sentence is a profound example of worthless wordiness because the word “literal” means nothing at all.  If our speaker was indeed lost for an hour, then the word need not be there at all.  If the person was not lost for an hour, then s/he is a liar and the word serves no purpose except to mislead the listener.  There is no point whatsoever to using the word in this sentence.

For some reason, “literally” has become a means of expressing the serious or extreme or dramatic nature of something.  We feel the need to add weight to our statements; thus, it happened literally.  The word has become a way of adding emphasis rather than adding meaning, but it is becoming so overused and so misused, that it adds neither.

This literally makes me want to cry.

Actually, I don’t want to cry.  I’m too annoyed.

How should literally be used, then, you ask?  When would it be appropriate?  One use for this word is when something that is normally figurative or hypothetical is actually happening or being discussed.

For example:

  • “The first pancake I flipped when I tried to make breakfast for the campers literally flew out of the frying pan and into the fire!”
  • “That’s not my cup of tea.” “Oh, you don’t like Earl Grey?” “No, that’s literally not my cup of tea.  Who stole my tea?”
  • “That kid is literally between a rock and a hard place, isn’t he?” “Should we help him get out?” “Nah, he’ll be fine.”

All of these statements are based on phrases that we know quite well, but in these cases, they are actually happening in one way or another.  The figurative has become literal.  As a result, the use of “literally” allows the audience to appreciate the irony and to recognize the figurative versus the literal.

I will climb off my soapbox about this particular issue, now (not literally – I’m sitting down).  Hopefully, you have learned something.  If I have instilled even a little paranoia these last few weeks about adverbs, I will feel good about myself.  And now you understand the perils of the literal versus the figurative.

Let’s choose our words wisely and use them well.

Wordy Wisdom: Very, Very Verbose

Last week, I wordily confessed my wordy sins.  I tend to over-express things.  I want to make absolutely sure that the reader understands just how funny a scene is in my story.  I want my vision of a character’s expression or the sound of their voice – how they say something – to come through so that the reader shares my experience when I imagined up my world and my characters and my adventures.

I want them to see the details.

pos-adverb The problem is that no matter how detailed I am, every reader is going to see something different.  If I describe the trees as deepest emerald green, arching their branches majestically over the stone path like a cathedral ceiling, a hundred different readers are going to envision a hundred different emerald, branchy , arching, cathedral tree ceilings.  One of the key differences between a book story and a film story is that the reader’s eyes are given a picture in the latter, but in the former, the picture is created in the minds of both author and reader, and that picture changes as a result.

The question is, how much information does a reader actually need to get the general idea?  If we authors have conjured up a scene in our heads, we want to guide our readers as close as we can get them to that image.  What can we say to get them there?

My imperfect solution is often a succession of adverbs and adjectives, descriptive words that define and direct the scene.  I want my characters speaking angrily or dramatically, quietly or excitedly, impulsively or thoughtfully.  For instance: “Don’t touch that.”  How is the character saying it?  Why?  What does it sound like in my head?  I want my reader to know.

mark twain

Mark Twain always looks like he just stepped on an entire family of adverbs.

Mark Twain said that if we see an adverb or adjective, we should kill it.  My response is on the defensive side.  First of all, what did adverbs ever do to Mark Twain?  Secondly, I don’t think someone with a pen name has any business telling anyone else that they are being excessive.  And thirdly, sometimes an adverb creates exactly the right feeling we want to express, and removing the word removes the feeling.

What I think Twain may be getting at in his extreme way is the virtue of moderation.  I have begun to go back through my story, and one thing I am looking for is how often I use descriptive words, particularly adverbs, that can simply easily be removed.  If I take it out, will the meaning change? Do I need it?

Words like “excitedly” and “obstinately” and “incandescently” are large and dramatic and easy to spot.  I love adding “rather” to sentences to convey instant irony.  Everything can be “rather” something.  Of course, if everything is “rather” something, “rather” doesn’t mean anything, at all.  I have to be very careful to eliminate excessive “rather”s from my stories.

One of the sneakier adverbs that catches me is “very.”

And now I’m paranoid.  Have I used it in this post?  Is it lurking somewhere nearby?

Yep.  Found it.

I am afraid to admit the number of times I have gone through a story and found a whole host of “very”s living within it. If Twain thinks that adverbs are the enemy, then he would probably say that “very” is their leader.   “Very” is not just its own problem.   “Very” always has friends –  modifying friends in the forms of adjectives and adverbs and more adverbs.  “Very” can become “Very, very”, which can then be added to another adverb, another adjective, stretching on and on until the sentence is nothing but a whole lot of “very”s and nothing else.

This is, needless to say, very, very bad writing.

I cannot agree with Mr. Twain that all “very”s are bad.  Adverbs have their place, as do adjectives.  We must describe and define in order to give our pictures life and depth.  There is, however, a great deal to be said for strong, meaningful words that need no trimmings.  Something very, very bad is awfulhorrid, despicable, or vile.  Something said excitedly is blurtedexclaimed, or gasped.

We have at our disposal enough word that are defined in themselves that we do not so often need crutches.  Adjectives and adverbs have their place.  They need not be always killed.  But they will be more effective if used less often, and the story will move all the more swiftly and surely if there are fewer words wandering around in the middle.

(Who wants to count how many adverbs I used in that last sentence?)

Wordy Wisdom: Too Much of a Good Thing

It’s the month of March, which means all sorts of things.

  • It means that the weather feels the need to act like a cantankerous lion for the next few weeks before retreating into wooly, warm spring.
  • It means that there are Ides to beware (which could be good or bad depending on whether or not you are an emperor.)Beware-the-ides-of-March-730709
  • It means that for just one day, everyone will suddenly believe in leprechauns (which impresses the leprechauns not at all).
  • It also means that the days are ticking by, and there is a great, long manuscript awaiting editing on my digital desktop.  Editing is not my favorite thing, to be quite honest.  I like creating new material more than I like niggling over the old stuff.  And it’s never done.
    Never.

Because I must suffer through this editing process, I thought that I would allow our faithful readers to suffer a bit, too.  I’m just nice like that.

So, while March grumbles and blunders toward April, I am going to discuss one of the areas in which I struggle the most when it come to writing: wordiness.

I love words.  This is a good thing, since I also like to write. Words are fun.   They can be played with and manipulated and built one atop the other into grand and glorious statements of deep meaning.  I can make my readers laugh with them.  I can shock and dismay with them.

Unfortunately, there is such thing as using too many words, and I have this problem.  Case in point, let’s take a look at how long it took me to get to the point of my post.  I’d like to say that I made my post wordy on purpose as a teaching exercise, but this is actually just my problem with using too many words.  Like “actually.”  “Actually” didn’t need to be there.  Sorry.

I think many times, we writers get so excited to see words appearing on the page in front of us that we forget that quantity is only a partial triumph.  We become so enthralled with a delightful turn of phrase that we don’t realize a much shorter sentence might do the trick just as well, and our readers would thank us for it, too.   We add the perfect adjective, and the sentence starts to shake.  We carefully nudge an adverb into place, and it begins to tip.  We throw on a semicolon so we can keep going; the sentence tumbles over in a heap of excellent, frustrating words.

wordiness calvin and hobbes academia writing

For the next few weeks, I’m going to talk more about words – misused words and overused words and ways that we could let our words serve our purposes better.  In this struggle of mine, I’d like to explore our options. How can we create something beautiful with our words without stepping over the line of what is good into something florid, exaggerated, or dull?  When is that extra word necessary and when have we said enough?

I should probably stop writing now before this wordy post on wordiness gets any wordier.

National Novel Writing Month – Day 1

While I’m still stuffed from Halloween candy and the cobwebs are still hanging in the corners of the room (I haven’t determined if they are fake webs or not), it is time to change gears.  November 1 marks the beginning of NaNoWriMo, the epic writing challenge to write a novel in a month.  That is write at least 50,000 words in a month – 50,000 words being the minimum requirement for a novel.

Last year, I participated…sort of…I didn’t follow the rules completely.  See your supposed to start with a fresh idea or at least a story that you haven’t written on before.  I, on the other hand, continued to work on a story that I had already started, The Keepers. I’m going to cheat again this year too.  Last year’s novel is still in working order and I am determined to finish it.

So as I eat another twix, I’m contemplating the details of how I’m going to do this.  Last year I followed a particular character, Denri.  She is not the main character just the catalyst for the real adventure.  I think I’m going to write about Larus this time and tell his side of the story.  He is a Yeoman and grew up in the Tombs and I last left him about to face some serious danger…

What you want details?  Sorry…I hate spoilers.(The Prologue to the Keepers is featured in the latest issue of The Gallery of Worlds – All Hallows Eve Edition. It’s going to be the new serial.

Well, I’m off.  I have about 1667 words to write and now I have some ideas flowing. Sleep is for the weak…

Happy Writing!

By the way, I’d love to hear about your NaNoWritMo adventures.