Writing Prompt: 05/31/10

"Your phone rings. When you answer it, you make a startling discovery: the person on the other end is dead. What does he/she say and why are they calling you?"

Write for 15-30 minutes. My response will be posted 6/02/10.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Essay: Vocabulary is Important.

Yesterday I was accosted by a madwoman.

Stick with me; this is relevant. I detest getting involved in online arguments. The problem is that I am very, very good at them, as well as very, very prickly on certain subjects on which I consider myself well-informed. I also don't take stupidity well.

Let me define stupidity as I see it, which has nothing to do with the dictionary definition. To me, ignorance is not knowing something. I am ignorant of particle physics. I am ignorant of the rules for curling. I am ignorant why women carry such gigantic-ass handbags and have six times more shoes than I do even though they have the same number of feet.

I am not stupid. Being stupid is willful ignorance. Stupid is knowing a fact, but ignoring it and hoping that it goes away. Stupid is also having access to knowledge and information but refusing to use it.

This is why arguing on the Internet is a waste of time, by the way. Either you are right, which means you're probably me, or you are wrong, and if you are wrong, then it means that you are wrong despite being connected to the largest repository of knowledge, information, and wisdom in the history of mankind!

That's just lazy, which is why I frickin' hate it. Stupid is a passionate defense of ignorance and it burns my nipples to deal with.

As you can see, there is a special place in my heart for stupid. In the case of the maniac, I was on Facebook, which I also barely tolerate. (People, I don't give a thin shit about your damn farm. I'm on Facebook to stay in touch with my family, not to play your silly ass games. The Mafia is a blight on Americans of Italian descent, not a frickin' game! Sororities are literally sophomoric. Why you'd want to emulate the grossest forms of coed behavior is beyond my ken.)

A friend of mine had posted that he was waiting for his wife to come home. Since both he and his wife are friends of mine and both have a great sense of humor, I posted, “I prefer to simply wait for 'A' wife to come home. It takes less time.”

That's an obvious joke, if you happen to be stupid, which I know you are not.

Enter the madwoman, who accosted me, correcting my grammar to tell me, “No, he's waiting for THE wife to come home! He means HIS wife!”

My reply was, “I understand grammar. Do you understand humor? I'm not interested in your opinion of the jokes I tell my friends.”

I told you that story to tell you this one: Her response to me was, “Well, since you decided to reply to me you obviously *DO* care about my opinion, so your post was redundant.”

Stop here. The rest of the argument ends with me excoriating her, particularly after she called me 'boy' while demanding that I show her proper respect(!), and my friend kicking her clean out of his friends list.

What I was leading up to was her incorrect use of the word “redundant.”

This silly ass story is my way of explaining why I choose to post a vocabulary word every single day on my twitter account.

Writing is sculpting with words. You must understand the use of every word you wish to commit to paper. Failure to do so results in blunders like the one she committed. Now, I didn't rub her nose in the fact that she was word-stupid; there were much better attributes of her character for me to assault, like her insistence on bleating out her opinion where it was neither needed nor wanted. Not everyone is a writer, even on an Internet that is 90% textual, so I don't go round correcting grammar and spelling very often, but I certainly notice incorrect word usage.

Redundant: adj. 1: characterized by verbosity or unnecessary repetition in expressing ideas.

What she was trying to go for was the word ironic, which most people confuse with coincidental.

Irony: n. 1: the use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning. (“How nice that you have to work all weekend.”)

Coincidence: n. 1: a striking occurrence of two or more events at one time apparently by mere chance. (“Bob and Jamie were both listening to different stations when the same song came on and they started singing together.”) Much sarcasm is ironic. Very little is coincidental.

There was no repetition to my expressing to her that I was not interested in her reply, however, her attempted point was slightly valid in that replying does, in fact, confer some kind of importance to the original post, making my response ironic. Her use of the wrong word makes her ignorant, but not necessarily incorrect.

I can clearly recall a series of books I read when I was a child by the amazing author of the Encyclopedia Brown series by Donald J. Sobol. Along a similar vein to the EB works, Sobol also wrote a series of 2 Minute Mysteries. Each of these were short fiction with a detective who was great at spotting hidden or slightly hidden clues. Rather than give them away, the answers were in the back of the book, (the Encyclopedia Brown series did things the same way).

In one of the stories a man was impersonating a famous author, writing critic, and English professor who was coming in to a publisher to get a look at a new contract. Problem is, the author was supposed to be dead, so was this guy actually who he said he was?

The author seated himself and asked, “May I have a moment to scan the contract?” After briefly looking over the document, he reached for a pen to sign, but the detective snarled, “You sign that, you leave here in cuffs!”

Why? Turn to page 64 for the answer!

Here, Mr. Sobol carefully explained another fallacy of the English language. No expert in the use of words like a professional author and English professor would ever misuse the word “scan” in this context.

Scan: v. 1: to examine the particulars or points of minutely; scrutinize.

The word that should have been used was skim.

Skim: v. 1: to read, study, consider, treat, etc., in a superficial or cursory manner.

Now we enter the use of colloquial phrasings. If you check Dictionary.com, you'll discover that scan does mean “to read hastily.” Why? Because language changes, sometimes drastically, over time.

Consider the use of the word “villain.” To us it means a horribly evil bad guy. To the people of Europe in 1275AD it meant, “villager.” There is a reason that both words start with “vill-”. They come from the same root word, like “diversity” and “divide.” (Do people understand now why I hate diversity training?)

Sometimes it might be necessary to use a word incorrectly. I do it often when I work with my students, where I frequently tell them to make something “more gooder.” I use this as humor-- and to let them know that on occasion, when there is good enough reason (like making a funny!) you can break the rules. It also helps reinforce to my students how inane incorrect grammar actually sounds. Even though that is a joke, when you're in a serious conversation and you use a word incorrectly, you can sound just as silly.

Another example is when certain characters speak. If I were writing dialog for a rough tradesman in London at the turn of the 20th century, I wouldn't use language that made him out to sound like an Oxford professor. (Unless, of course, that was one of his inconsistencies-- the little unusual things about us that make us real. Perhaps an Oxford professor decided to stop teaching after a horrible question of competence and scandal and went to work down at the docks... maybe there's a story behind the story.)

Another thing I try not to do is overuse words. Not only does this keep me away from cliches (mostly), but it also keeps my writing more fresher. (Hee, hee!)

The following is an excerpt from the prologue to the Crossed Swords video game played by the characters. It's the story Lolyanni tells them of her world and their quest.

Now the Artekkians worshipped the God Vaargus, who was desirous of dominion and power over the world. Vaargus gazed upon the stone, and his black heart leapt with joy, for he and he alone could see the lion’s shape within it, and he and he alone could feel the power that bringing forth such a shape would unearth. He took the stone in his hands and, with tools of human bone and the blood of thousands of sacrifices he twisted and shaped the jade into the semblance of a great maned cat.”

In that paragraph, the word 'power' is used twice (underlined). That's about my limit in a single paragraph. I think if a word, particularly an attention grabber like 'power' is going to take place more than twice in three sentences then you need to break it up with a synonym like, “supremacy” (first use) or “might” (second use). Otherwise the word sort of sings out to the reader and hangs them up on the text.

However, you also want to be careful that you don't go overboard. Terry Pratchett once said, “Cliches are the hammers and nails in the toolbox of literary convention.” Cliches exist for a reason. They are metaphors that have been used frequently because they fit certain circumstances. Don't be afraid to use them when you need them, and don't go looking for a four dollar word when a penny parcel will do the job.

In the same clipping from XS above, look for the word “stone” (boldfaced). There's no real reason to go out looking for words like boulder, crag, crystal, gem, grain, gravel, jewel, masonry, metal, mineral, ore, pebble, rock, or stonework. While these are all good words, they don't really move the story along. Instead they would sound forced or contrived. The only synonym I used was the word jade, which kept me away from my three-use-in-a-paragraph limit and brings to mind a specific type of stone.

Are these hard and fast rules? Absolutely not. The only real rule is that any craftsman must be skilled with the use of his tools. I don't want to see a carpenter with band aids on his thumbs. I don't want to see a mechanic who drives a Yugo (unless that sumbitch is pimped!). I definitely don't want to see a doctor who smokes or an obese nutritionist.

Here is what I do for my twitter account and the Writer's Word of the Day. First, I downloaded the incredibly practical and completely free Dictionary.com app from the Apple Store. Not only is this a fully functional dictionary and thesaurus with 500,000 words when it's offline, but when it's connected to the Internet it automatically accesses the web site on lookup, giving you access to millions of words. It also offers a word of the day, but I don't use that one (for several reasons I won't go into here, although there's nothing wrong with it.) The groovycool thing about this particular app is that to get a random word you simply shake the device. If it's a word I already know, I usually skip it, but if it's a word that's obscure or interesting enough, I'll post it to my Twitter account.

So here's my challenge to you, writer friends. Are you smarter than a 6th Grader? When I taught 6th grade language arts, I went well beyond our required curriculum. I taught the spelling, definition, part of speech, and use in a meaningful sentence of five words, every day. All I challenge you, author that you are, to do is learn one new word every day.

Concentrate on the proper meaning and the proper spelling, and focus on words that have bitten you before. For example, I can never remember how to spell “bureau,” and when you bitch about the Obama government as much as I do, you need to be able to whip out the word “bureaucracy” when you need it. (You also need to be able to spell “incompetent,” “inexperienced,” and “asshattery.”)

When I realized there was a red line under it every time I wrote it, I decided it was time to do something. I sat down with a pencil and piece of paper and wrote the word fifty times. Now I can spell it. Thank you, Miss Briscoe for making me do the same thing in second grade with antidisestablishmentarianism. Sometimes the old tricks work the best.

Or is that “bestest”?

Write on!

Christopher Rivan

Virgins Slain, Dragons Rescued.
Reasonable rates for all budgets!




  1. I soooo cringed when I read 'redundant' in her comment :/

    Random thoughts:
    For the record I've always held to these definitions in my dictionary for irony: 6. an outcome of events contrary to what was expected, or might have been expected 7. the incongruity of this. (had to correct an error - I originally typed 'inconFruity' I considered leaving it 'cause it made me laugh but this is an essay on vocabulary after all :D )
    Such as the woman who was afraid of fire but died poor so the state had to cremate her.

    I once saw an episode of The Mentalist and he said 'sarcasm is the lowest form of wit.' he forgot to add it's the funniest :)

    And yeah, I have a problem with using the same word over and over again. Unless it's for poetic reasons, it usually throws me out of the story and then I start concentrating on the words - so annoying.

    uh, that's it ...

  2. It's very easy to get coincidence and irony confused, too. In fact, the Random House dictionary lists "coincidental" as a definition of ironic, but that's not accurate. (Although it may be moving into the realm of colloquialism after so long misused.)

    Inconfruity, n, 1: the act of dressing like a complete cupcake to attend a science fiction or fantasy convention.