Lift Your Eyebrows, Glance Here Briefly

Did this title cause you pain? I sincerely apologize but I had to make a point. It’s a very important point in a world where we’re all writers and it comes down to this: respect language. It is your weapon of choice, so wield it wisely lest you cut yourself or kill a story.

There are millions if not billions of words online–and offline for that matter–dealing with writing advice and a lot of it is really good advice, worth heeding. So I won’t go into the use vs the non-use of adverbs or showing vs telling, etc. Many better writing people (no hyphen intended) than me have written about it. What I will do, however, will be to share a few musings on why using language properly is so damn important. You’ll have to excuse my, well, language but I do get pissed off easily when I see someone being careless with words.

First, let’s get one thing straight. Ever since Ferdinand de Saussure said language was an arbitrary system things have been going from bad to worse. Today, a lot of people believe language is so fluid, so easily changeable they can do whatever they like with it, verbalizing nouns and nominalizing verbs all the time instead of first checking if there isn’t a better–and actually existing–word. I won’t even go into adverbialization (yes, this is an actual word) and other -ations that make my blood boil and cause me to throw books at walls.

My daughter does all that. You know why? Because she’s seven and still in the process of learning language. I’ll stop here.

Okay, now that I got this out of my system, let’s talk a little bit about collocation and semantic fields, shall we? Collocation is about two or more words going together like, I don’t know, peanut butter and jelly or fish and chips. They are normally (and by normally I mean always) used together and when someone wants to be original and break a collocation, it feels unnatural, not original. That’s because collocation is not a synonym for cliche. Read more here in case you’re interested. I’ll just say the drive for originality in language at all costs has a lot to answer for.

Semantic fields? Why, thanks for asking. Semantic fields are groups of words with either similar meaning or all relating to a single concept or idea that are used in different–you guessed it–collocations. And that’s the simplest definition I could come up with. “Verbs of movement” is a semantic field. ” “Body parts” is a semantic field. More on semantic fields here but this is why they are important: because if you don’t care about them you start lifting eyebrows and glancing briefly here and there.

In case you feel there is nothing wrong with using lift+eyebrows, think again. Sure, you can lift your eyebrows, or someone else’s, preferably. You just need to apply a cutting device to said eyebrows and then, I don’t know, a pair of pliers, to lift them off whatever surface they’d dropped to. This is opposed to raising eyebrows, which only requires the movement of a set of facial muscles and involves no blood. I’d call this a significantly important difference in meaning.

Ah, the pest of adverbs. I have no problem with adverbs in general. I do have a problem with too many adverbs but so does everyone. I also have a particularly grave problem with made up adverbs. People! There are enough adverbs as it is and we are being emphatically advised to use them sparingly. Why on earth would you go and make up new ones? Use a verb. Also, speaking as a translator, I’ll translate your made-up adverb with a verb anyway, so why bother?

Now for my favourite topic: logic. Making sense. Things here are very simple: if your story doesn’t make sense no one will believe it. It will fail in that greatest of all writing endeavours, the suspension of disbelief. There are many ways you can mess this up but here are just a few quite innocent examples.

“She cupped his cheek in her hand.” That’s one of mine. I cringed when I saw it, reading yesterday’s work to get into the mood for more writing. It’s called a pleonasm, if you want an academic word, and it sucks. In this here case, it sucks because what else can you cup someone’s cheek with, your mouth? The image is too horrible to contemplate even briefly. We only have our hands to cup body parts with, remember that. I will. Until next time because nobody is perfect and that’s why we have multiple drafts and editors, amen.

“…he remembers the cards he chose–four spades, all of them black–“ Another pleonasm, more hilarious than mine, I admit. Black spades, can you believe it? That happens when you get carried away by the urge to explain, and explain, and explain, and make sure every single word is understood beyond the shadow of a doubt. Yeah, that’s bad.

“As they ran through the forest, bent over to avoid the enemy’s arrows, they reloaded their crossbows.” That’s from a book I recently translated and although it was by far not the only or even the worst mistake the author had made this one made me want to curl up in a corner and cry because it is offensive to readers.

The reason it is offensive is that the author has clearly not done any research on crossbows in the mistaken belief her readers will swallow anything she feeds them. So let’s spell it out. One cannot reload a crossbow while running or even walking at a leisurely pace. Crossbows are difficult to reload. It follows logically that one cannot reload a crossbow while running bent over. It is a ridiculous piece of text that stabs the suspension of disbelief in the heart, the stomach, the kidneys, and the liver, for good measure. This is a cruel thing to do.

“She peeked her head through the door”. Or was it “around the door?” I can’t remember and it doesn’t matter. What we have here is a gap in the grasp of types of verbs. Or it could be temporary insanity. In any case, you don’t “peek your head.” You don’t peek your anything because peek is–for the time being at least–only an intransitive verb. Sure, if enough people use it transitively it will sooner or later start taking on objects, poor thing (look what happened to impact), but in 2018, according to the Oxford dictionaries, peek is intransitive only. I try to respect that.

I know I sound like a snarky old purist and I am. I love language and I have high expectations of everyone who uses it, including myself and no, this doesn’t mean I always live up to them. Not at all. But language and a sense of humour are the two nice things that set us apart from other mammals and the rest of the animal kingdom (the non-nice things being succinctly described as the seven deadly sins in Christianity and I’m sure in other religions, too).

I’d say this deserves respect, would’t you? And it’s not that hard to get better. All it takes is reading a lot of books, good and bad. After a while, you learn to spot the differences. That’s what happened to me and if I could learn that, anyone can and they have no excuse for lifting eyebrows and glancing briefly.

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