The Critique Circle Blog

The CC Blog is written by members of our community.
Do you want to write a blog post? Send Us a blog request

Menu
  • View RSS Feed
  • View all blogs
Jan
12
2016

Words - The Writer's Building Blocks -- by Ernie Watson

The most basic element of writing construction is word choice. For the writer to convey his meaning to the reader he must choose his words carefully and use them accurately.

A simple example is the word ‘cob’. The word could mean part of a maize ear, a round loaf of bread, a small nut, a small horse, a male swan or a lump of coal. The context where the word is used will define the meaning. If I wrote about a farmer who rode a piebald cob the reader would assume I’m writing about a small horse. If I wrote about someone eating a cob, however, my reader may not be able to decide what I meant when I wrote ‘cob’. To make sure my reader knows what I want to say I have to check that the context leaves no doubt in his mind.

I also have to consider if this very small word will be in the vocabulary of the person who will read my work. I doubt that all British readers will be familiar with all the definitions of the word cob. Many English speakers in the rest of the world may never have even heard the word. Is the word use appropriate for my reader? Perhaps it would be better to describe a farmer who thoughtfully chewed a hazelnut as he rode a powerfully built, short-legged, piebald horse than use the word cob. It may be tempting to show my reader I have extensive knowledge of this lovely little word ‘cob’ but is it the right choice?

The novelist Laurie Graham uses the word in her book MR STARLIGHT (2004). She says:

“She'd got a right old cob on her and I hadn't even got as far as the details of Sel's Higher Purpose in America.”

In this context the word indicates that ‘She’ is being grumpy or is sulking. The word has been in use for at least 300 years but I doubt that this definition can be found in a standard English dictionary. Is Laurie Graham right to use the word? I believe she is. She knows that her readership will recognise the word and the context. She paints a great mental picture in a few words with great precision.

We all should recognise that English is an evolving language. Fifty years ago anyone who used the word stadiums as the plural of stadium instead of stadia would be regarded as uneducated. I cringe every time I see the word forums used instead of fora here at Critique Circle. It seems so wrong but I have to accept that it is correct in modern usage. We all have to move with the times.

I have seen several instances where a writer has used a word without regard for its correct meaning. When challenged, writers have responded by saying that when they use the word it means something other than the dictionary definition. There are over a million words in the English language surely it would be better to find one that is a more precise fit.

Often writers will hyphenate words willy-nilly without considering if it is correct. Commonly used hyphenated words can be found in the dictionary. If I cannot find the word in the dictionary perhaps I should not use it. Yet we often see words that should be hyphenated without hyphens. When numbers such as twenty-three, twenty-fifth, one-fourth, two-thirds are written they should be hyphenated but are often not.

As with all writing, the overriding consideration should be how appropriate the writing is for the reader. If my target reader is mature and well educated he will know if my work is littered with inaccuracies. He may conclude that my works is badly written and not worth reading.

Using too many simple words may cause my reader to feel he is being patronised or undervalued. If my work is accurate but my target reader has to keep reaching for his dictionary he may become bored and irritated and may even get a ‘cob on’. My choice of words could be the deciding factor if a reader remains engaged with my story.

I watched the BBC News today and was shocked to hear the newscaster say that tear gas was fired at refugees. It’s terrible that this happened, but I am also disturbed that a newscaster would use such an emotive word as fired. The word was used as a verb and the definition is “to cause a weapon to shoot bullets, arrows, or missiles”. There were no bullets, arrows or missiles involved. What happened was liquid was spread in small drops over an area. In other words the refugees were sprayed. To use the word sprayed does not diminish what happened, but it gives a more accurate picture. The newscaster could have described how the tear gas affected the refugees and this would have resulted in a more balance report. The use of the word ‘fired’ certainly grabbed my attention. I don’t know if it was used in error or if it was used to change the viewer’s perspective on what happened. My point is, it demonstrates the power wielded by the choice of one little word against another.

The words I put into the mouths of my characters will say a great deal about them. My protagonist could answer a question with a simple ‘yes’ but could also say ‘sure’ or ‘indubitably’. Would the same words have the same nuances in the mouth of my antagonist?

I must consider the emotive effect that word choice has on my reader. If I’m writing an action scene I would be using short sharp words such as snap and jab in short sentences and paragraphs. Introspective scenes may require atmospheric words that plant subliminal images in the mind of the reader. I should consider the use of onomatopoeia a good example is a song by Tom Paxton called “The Marvelous Toy” by Tom Paxton:

“It went zip when it moved and bop when it stopped,

And whirr when it stood still.

I never knew just what it was and I guess I never will.”

It may seem an impossible minefield for a writer to navigate but it’s not. All the above are examples of devices that we use in our everyday speech. We can use them all in writing our stories. Use the words you are comfortable with. Don’t force yourself to use words that don’t come naturally. Use your unique voice to speak to the reader that listens to you.

Posted by Ernie Watson 12 Jan 2016 at 01:09
Do you want to write for the Critique Circle Blog? Send us a message!

Responses to this blog

Kcm 12 Jan 2016 at 09:13  

Excellent, thought provoking blog. This sincere sentiment ends my discussion of the blog, per se. I move to discussion of some fun-to-spend-time-with thoughts it provokes. (Hyphens applied to stitch this patchwork into the single adjective term.)


I admire a particular term for the word, ?term? because ?term papers? notwithstanding, it welcomes communication efficiencies which use of a dictionary might advise us to shun. Ernie?s example from Laurie Graham is a perfect example for his purpose. It also explains my fondness for ?term.? Graham wrote ?cob,? in her story just as did Ernie in his blog. Same word. And we must agree that to seek a blessing within a modern dictionary for ?cob? as a term meaning to be being grumpy or be sulking courts futility. Despite this withheld blessing, Ernie welcomes the forsaken term?as do I.

There is a clich?d phrase, ?to come to terms.? In coming to terms we begin with a word ambiguous in meaning, let us say ?cob.? Now, here in my parlor in US New Hampshire, a cob is the substrate that supports the edible structures of corn (Spare me the word ?maize.? Even as a refugee it?s unwelcome.) Of the other six uses Ernie puts forth, only one?the swan?has visited my 68 years of experience. A good writer, of course, does not hesitate to expand a reader?s term of experience as does Douglas Adams in the passage:


Hence a phrase that has passed into hitchhiking slang, as in ?Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There?s a frood who really knows where his towel is.? (Sass: know, be aware of, meet, have sex with; hoopy: really together guy; frood: really amazingly together guy.)

Adams, Douglas (2010-09-29). The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (p. 21). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Thank you for your thought filled discussion, Ernie.

Kevin
Bpagano 12 Jan 2016 at 14:36  

I have seen several instances where a writer has used a word without regard for its correct meaning. When challenged, writers have responded by saying that when they use the word it means something other than the dictionary definition. There are over a million words in the English language surely it would be better to find one that is a more precise fit.


I love this paragraph. This was a really well written piece that emphasized precision and grammar are not mere pedantry, but crucial for communication.
Amber_la13 12 Jan 2016 at 15:36  

I watched the BBC News today and was shocked to hear the newscaster say that tear gas was fired at refugees. It?s terrible that this happened, but I am also disturbed that a newscaster would use such an emotive word as fired. The word was used as a verb and the definition is ?to cause a weapon to shoot bullets, arrows, or missiles?. There were no bullets, arrows or missiles involved.

I couldn't help it. I had to comment on this part.

Yes, the tear gas can indeed be 'fired' at refugees.

Fired: discharge a gun or other weapon in order to explosively propel (a bullet or projectile).
Projectile: an object propelled through the air, especially one thrown as a weapon.
Riot gun: riot gun or less-lethal launcher is a type of firearm that is used to fire "non-lethal" or "less-lethal" ammunition for the purpose of suppressing riots.

^Such as tear gas.

So yes, tear gas can indeed be 'fired' at refugees. Sorry, I just really had to get that off my chest.
Chaine 12 Jan 2016 at 17:30  
Amber_la13

The point I'm making has nothing to do with how dangerous, nasty, or life threatening the gas is. Anyone who has served in the British Armed Forces, as I have, knows the effect of tear gas. Being exposed to it was part of my military training. It's about using words that accurately describe what happens. The refugees were being sprayed with tear gas. That is exactly what happened. They were sprayed. The news report could have said that the refugees were sprayed and reported the effects of such spraying but they didn't. They chose to use the word fired. The report was therefore inaccurate and slanted to be emotive.

Pmartissm 17 Jan 2016 at 23:21  
My WIP is set in northern England and there are wonderful expressions the locals use. (I come from the Derbyshire/Yorkshire border and was brought up on them) I use them sparingly and ensure the context suggests the meaning. An example is "Eh?s gorra munk on" meaning he?s in a bad mood.

I think it's Ok to use colloquialisms IF the context is made obvious. It helps with authenticity, but one needs to be aware of over usage, or you risk your potential reader lists dropping to those few people who actually understand the idiom.



Chaine 18 Jan 2016 at 03:06  
I agree with Pmartissm. As Elmore Leonard said in rule 7 of his 10 Rules for Good Writing:

Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.


Myra 8 Feb 2016 at 17:31  

When numbers such as twenty-three, twenty-fifth, one-fourth, two-thirds are written they should be hyphenated but are often not.

I never knew this...I will be hyphenating my numbers from now on. Thanks Ernie

Respond to this blog

Please log in or create a free Critique Circle account to respond to this blog


Member submitted content is © individual members.
Other material is ©2003-2017 critiquecircle.com
Back to top