I am so happy to welcome author Donn Taylor to Whispers in Purple today. Donn has written a special article—along with some tongue-in-cheek chuckles—to share with us.
So, take it away, Donn!
Avoiding Misuse of Words
One of the frustrations of being a writer of fiction or essays is the fact that we have only words to communicate with our readers. Novels and essays have no pictures or diagrams to clarify relationships, and gesturing with our hands or counting on our fingers does not help. The poet W.H. Auden went so far as to describe a poem as a "verbal contraption," a machine made out of words, to convey the poet's vision to the reader. Consequently, it behooves us as writers to respect words and their meanings, and to use them both correctly and appropriately. Here I will list some that are frequently misused in published writing, and then I will mention some that have become trite through overuse.
Let's begin with a heavy error (pardon the pun): The past tense of the verb to lead is led, not lead. This one slips through the proofreading to appear in quite a few novels. I am not immune to this kind of error: In a recent novel I wrote that a character's complexion was "unusually pail." (No, that didn't mean she would kick the bucket.) Fortunately, a proofreader caught my error before publication.
Another common error is confusion of the two verbs lie and lay. (They were separate verbs as far back as Middle English.) The forms of lie are lie, lay, lain, while the forms of lay are lay, laid, laid. Forms of lie never take a direct object: "I will lie down." Forms of lay always do: "I will lay the book on the desk." Confusion arises because the past tense of lie and the present tense of lay appear identical. The solution is to select the correct word in present tense and then convert to the appropriate tense. When all else fails, remember that we can only lay down if we are carrying duck feathers.
One frequently misused (and overused) word is incredible. Its first meaning describes something that can't be believed. The second describes something so unusual as to be beyond belief. A problem arises when the writer intends the second meaning when the first meaning is also possible. One writer recently wrote that she belonged to "an incredible church." Who would want to belong to a church that can't be believed?
Certain modifying words are "absolute," meaning that they cannot be modified as to degree. The most misused of these is unique, which means one of a kind. Something cannot be very one-of-a-kind or somewhat one-of-a-kind, yet one often hears the expression very unique or somewhat unique. Examples of other absolute words are equal, impossible, eternal, unanimous, square, round and perfect. (Yes, the US Constitution speaks of "a more perfect union." When we write a Constitution of the United States, we're entitled to use the same expression. Meanwhile, we must refrain from modifying absolute words.)
Some irritating usages occur when the writer attempts to sound sophisticated rather than write for plain meanings. One is using the term escalate for the more direct increase. (That is a cliché held over from the intellectuals of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.)
Next comes the attempt to sound sophisticated by using exacerbate when one means simply make worse. When we’re tempted to preen our sophistication, we should not rise to the exacer-bait.
Other words to avoid are those that have become clichéd through being overused. One such offender is Excuse me. In using it, the writer sarcastically feigns politeness while pretending to be victimized by a powerful but wrongheaded opposition. So many writers use this crutch that the victims apparently outnumber the oppressors.
Then there is using the word sure to introduce a sentence. (“Sure, some people still think the world is flat, but….”)
And there’s using the word Hey! as an attention-getter. (“Hey! Why do you want to use a cliché?”)
I suggest the following rules: 1. There is no excuse for excuse me. 2. Sure should be consigned to the sewer. 3. Hey should be fed to livestock. (They’ll never notice the difference in spelling.)
Ultimately, however, attempts to stamp out trite expressions are doomed to failure. One fundamental rule always applies: Whenever a writer can’t find his Pegasus, he’ll hitch old Dobbin to the cliché.
To summarize: For clarity, we writers should make it our business to know the meanings and accepted usages of words. For originality, we should avoid expressions that have become clichéd through overuse. As Auden said, each of our writings is a verbal contraption, our only means of conveying our vision to our readers.
Author: Donn Taylor
Publisher: Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas
Release Date: November 2014
Genre: Historical Romance/Mystery
Overview: In the years following World War II, a town too proud of its own virtues has to deal with its first murder. Despite the implications of this crime, the town of Beneficent, MS, population 479, tries desperately to hold onto its vain self-image. The young veteran Jack Davis holds that idyllic vision of the town and tries to share it with Lisa Kemper, newly arrived from Indiana. But she is repelled by everything in town. While the sheriff tries to find the murderer, Jack and Lisa’s contentious courtship reveals the town’s strange combination of astute perceptions and surprising blind spots. Then they stumble onto shocking discoveries about the true nature of the town. But where will these discoveries lead? To repentance? Or to denial and continuation in vanity?
Here’s what Publishers Weekly said about Lightning: “Taylor’s powerful historical romance is filled with passion and heart, spiced with mystery and a keen understanding of the human condition.”
Where to find Donn:
- Web site: www.donntaylor.com
Where to Buy Lightning on a Quiet Night:
♦Peg here: I hope you enjoyed Donn’s article as much as I did. I love his dry sense of humor. We would love to hear from you. Please leave your thoughts, or feel free to ask Donn some questions, in the Comments section below. Join the conversation!