Monday, May 14, 2012

The Difference Between Lightning and a Lightning Bug

Writers are supposed to pick the best descriptive word, but how do we do that when the English language - at least American English- gets squishier every day? And what if the "right" word is the wrong one?

In this age of intellectual dishonesty, courts cling to the "plain meaning" rule-i.e. that words should be taken at their common meaning-  while decreeing "or" means "and," and "shall" means "may." So, how does a writer cope with this trend?

We ignore it. while exploiting and tracking it.

Okay, I know that sounds contradictory, but hear me out. In writing for a broad audience, I need to ignore that small portion of it that thinks "exclusive" means "concurrent."

We all looked that the "translations" for archaic Old English expressions the first time we read Shakespeare. Language is fluid. It breaths, sighs, changes and dies. When a non-standard usage becomes an accepted one, I grit my teeth and use the "wrong" word. But not all characters should sound like news reporters. Non-standard usage, dialect, and picking the "wrong" word can give a depth to writing.

Outright abusing the language, as both Shakespeare's Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, and  Richard Brinsley Sheridan's Mrs. Malaprop in The Rivals did, introduces a comedic element. Shakespeare has at least six characters in six different plays who are guilty of using the wrong word on a fairly regular basis. Archie Bunker from TV's All In the Family often used the wrong to great comedic effect.

Mark Twain was right: To write effectively, your word choices must be perfect, especially if you're abusing the language like Dogberry, Mrs. Malaprop, or Archie Bunker. Look at those three characters. Constable Dogberry was crass, uneducated and odious. Mrs. Malaprop thought herself well educated and refined. Archie Bunker was ignorant and bigoted but thought himself well reasoned. Their misuse of the language highlights internal inconsistencies the characters can't see and makes them beloved figures. Word choice is everything. So a lightning bug may stand in for lightning when you strike for comedy.

Writers are the last line of defense for language. And we must pick the perfect word, which sometimes is the "wrong" word.

3 comments:

Robin Leigh Morgan said...

Hi Nancy



You can't take the word out of the context in which it is written. When you look at the word "LIGHTNING" and "LIGHTNING BUG" in one aspect of the definition of the word "LIGHTNING" you get of something that is of a brief duration. Both produce a light which only last a moment and is not seen until the next occurrence of luminmation. The only difference is the first is more widespread throughout the universe and the other is one which occurs only in a small minisule portion of it. One is dead while the other is alive.



Without the context in which it is written you can't deduce the meaning of what is being said. One example of this is "IT'S TIME TO CLEAVE EVERYONE ON THIS IMPORTANT ISSUE. In this sentence what do we mean by the word "CLEAVE"? Do we mean to BRING everyone together on this issue, or to separate everyone depending on the side of the issue they support?



Robin Leigh Morgan

Author - WIP - YA Paranormal/Time Travel/First Kiss romance novel.

http://www.mypennameonly.webs.com

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Robin Leigh Morgan said...

Hi Nancy

You can't take the word out of the context in which it is written. When you look at the word "LIGHTNING" and "LIGHTNING BUG" in one aspect of the definition of the word "LIGHTNING" you get of something that is of a brief duration. Both produce a light which only last a moment and is not seen until the next occurrence of luminmation. The only difference is the first is more widespread throughout the universe and the other is one which occurs only in a small minisule portion of it. One is dead while the other is alive.

Without the context in which it is written you can't deduce the meaning of what is being said. One example of this is "IT'S TIME TO CLEAVE EVERYONE ON THIS IMPORTANT ISSUE. In this sentence what do we mean by the word "CLEAVE"? Do we mean to BRING everyone together on this issue, or to separate everyone depending on the side of the issue they support?

Robin Leigh Morgan
Author - WIP - YA Paranormal/Time Travel/First Kiss romance novel.

http://www.mypennameonly.webs.com
http://www.mypennameonly.blogspot.com
http://www.mypennameonly.wordpress.com
http://www.mypennameonly.tumblr.com

http://www.twitter.com/mypennameonly

Nancy DiMauro said...

Exactly, Robin. The reason Dogberry, Mrs. Malaprop and Archie Bunker are funny is because the reader knows from the context (and brilliant writing) what they were trying to say when the "wrong" word is used. Whether we're following shifts in the language, writing dilect or intentiionally abusing the language our first job as a writer is to be clear. Context helps convey content.

Thanks for commenting.