Monday, May 14, 2012
The Difference Between Lightning and a Lightning Bug
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.