Some thoughts on diction and sentence structure

Somebody recently passed along a piece from a 1970 issue of Mad magazine called “Guaranteed Effective All-Occasion Non-Slanderous Political Smear Speech.” Here are the first three paragraphs:

My fellow citizens, it is an honor and a pleasure to be here today. My opponent has openly admitted he feels an affinity toward your city, but I happen to like this area. It might be a salubrious place to him, but to me it is one of the nation’s most delightful garden spots.

When I embarked upon this political campaign I hoped that it could be conducted on a high level and that my opponent would be willing to stick to the issues. Unfortunately, he has decided to be tractable instead — to indulge in unequivocal language, to eschew the use of outright lies in his speeches, and even to make repeated veracious statements about me.

At first, I tried to ignore these scrupulous, unvarnished fidelities. Now I do so no longer. If my opponent wants a fight, he’s going to get one!

It goes on in that vein for another page or so. The speaker describes his opponent and his positions using latinate words that sound like they ought to have negative connotations even though their dictionary definitions are perfectly innocuous.

I have written more than once about latinate and Anglo-Saxon diction as well as the idea that some words sound like what they mean and some (mostly latinate) words don’t. I won’t revisit those ideas here. Instead I would like to draw your attention to the amount of work that is accomplished by sentence structure, little connector words, transition words, and rhetorical markers.

Consider this sentence structure:

  • My opponent says      x     , but I say      y     .

You already understand quite a bit about that sentence even before you know what goes in the x blank and the y blank. You know that x and y, whatever the specifics, will contradict one another. That’s what “but” means.

If it turns out that x and y are just two ways of saying the same thing (x = “he has an affinity for this city,” y=”I like this city”), you will be confused–not because you don’t know what “affinity” means, but because you DO know what “but” means.

I bet “affinity” appeared on one of your Friday vocabulary tests. I bet “but” didn’t. But you can see which word carries more freight in this sentence:

  • My opponent has openly admitted he feels an affinity toward your city, but I happen to like this area.

By the way, that rhetorical marker “I happen to like this city” also confuses matters by seemingly heightening a contrast that isn’t there. Similar rhetorical confusion derives from that phrase, “My opponent has openly admitted…”

Or look at this sentence structure:

  • Unfortunately, he has decided      z     .

That transition word “unfortunately” sends you down a mental track before you find out what z is. Whatever it is, you know it’s going to be bad. So even though you know what “tractable” means (thanks, 8th-Grade Language Arts teacher!), you experience a moment of self-doubt when you see it behind that finger-wagging “unfortunately.”

So what at first appears to be a joke about diction turns out to be a joke about sentence structure. I’m not trying to downplay the importance of diction. Rather, I’m trying to emphasize the truth that sentence structures and those unglamorous connectors and transitions carry more meaning than we usually give them credit for.

What’s so very bad about “very”?

Yesterday I saw a listicle/infographic piece entitled “Replace the Word Very with One of These 128 Modifiers.” The intensifier very is “lazy and imprecise,” says the author, so she provides the reader with a convenient list of replacement words as a means toward less laziness and more precision.

When you are tempted to write “very cute,” for instance, you can consult the chart and see that you should plug in the word “adorable” instead. Before you write “very fast,” you can look at the chart and see that you really mean “swift.” Instead of “very loud,” what you want to say is “thunderous.” 

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Writing Dialogue that Doesn’t Sound Written

One of the most common criticisms of bad dialogue is that it “sounds written,” which is to say that it sounds more like the way people write than the way people talk. This creates a dilemma for the dialogue-writer, if not an existential crisis: your job is to write something that sounds as if you didn’t write it. Add to that the fact that you spent your whole career trying to learn how not to write like you talk, and you have a recipe for heartache.So how do you make the people in your stories talk the way people talk in the world God made? I have written on this topic in earlier issues of The Habit, so I will quickly recapitulate the big ideas and direct you to those letters. Then we will hunker down and talk about some practicalities with regard to sentence-structure and word-choice.

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Defenestrate. Pulchritude. Skunk. A Few Thoughts About Word Choice

In 1618, a crowd of angry Protestants threw two Catholic regents and their secretary from a third-story window at the Castle of Prague. All three survived the 70-foot fall, either because they were caught by angels or because they landed in a dung heap; you can probably guess which side of the conflict told which story. This act, which came to be known as the Second Defenestration of Prague, sparked the Thirty-Years’ War. The word ‘defenestration’ means the act of throwing a person out a window. It comes from the Latin de (from or away) + fenestra (window).

Every now and then somebody on Facebook will ask people about their favorite words. I always like looking at those lists. The word ‘defenestrate’ inevitably appears, and often quite early in the proceedings. I recently asked a friend why she liked the word. She wrote back, “I just love that such a word exists. It’s so remarkably specific.” I agree. It’s funny that such a specific word has made its way into our language. I also think it’s funny that the word didn’t get coined until the Second Defenestration of Prague. The First Defenestration of Prague, in 1419, sparked the Hussite War. At the Second Defenestration, the people of Prague apparently realized that starting wars by throwing people out windows was becoming a thing, and they should probably have a word for it.

I suspect people also like defenestrate because of the ironic distance that’s built right into it. It’s a Latinate, coolly rational word describing a violent act that one associates with hot-headed haste. It seems like a word that was invented to be used by Bertie Wooster.

As my students are no doubt tired of hearing, language conveys not only information but also experience. In defenestrate we have a big gap between the information conveyed (that is to say, the information you would find in a dictionary definition) and the experience depicted. There are words that sound like they were made up by somebody sitting at a desk, and there are words that sound like they grew out of the hurly-burly of human experience (hurly-burly, it occurs to me, belongs to the latter category). 

As the Bohemian mob closed in on the poor regents, nobody was saying, “Come on, boys, let’s defenestrate them!” If some rabble-rouser in the streets of Prague had said, “To the Castle! Let’s defenestrate the regents!” the members of the rabble wouldn’t know whether to bring pitchforks or brickbats or ropes. Or a box of Valentine’s candy. No, the word defenestration came into being when some pamphleteer sat at a desk and wrote, “In light of last week’s unfortunate defenestrations…”

For lack of a more precise way of putting it, some words just sound like what they are, and some words don’t. The word mellifluous is mellifluous, and the word lugubrious sounds melancholy and gloomy (and possibly even boo-hooey). If you fling somebody out a window, that verb fling matches the action in a way that defenestrate doesn’t (and never claimed to).

Pulchritude may be the least helpful word in the English language. It’s an ugly word; no beloved wants you praising her pulchritude. And why is pulchritude ugly? Because it sounds like puke. You wouldn’t even have to speak English to know what puke means, because it sounds exactly like what it is.

When people list their least-favorite words, the word moist almost always makes the list. Why? Again, it sounds like what it is. And, significantly, I think, when you pronounce the word moist you make a face that you would make if you were feeling disgust. So moist is a perfect word for describing a slug or some other thing that is both moist and disgusting. But when you apply the word moist to a piece of cake, or to an upper lip or an article of clothing, bad things may start to happen. Because language conveys not just information, but sensory experience.

For my part, I like words that sound like they could have been made up by somebody in a log cabin. Cantankerous, hardscrabble, conniption, skedaddle, flabbergasted, tromp, flummoxed, traipse. One exception, however, is the use of the word polecat for skunk. When it comes to useless words, I put polecatright up there with pulchritudeSkunk comes from the Algonquin squunk. When you say the word, your nose naturally scrunches in exactly the way it scrunches when you smell a skunk. Who ever thought that polecat might be a better name? It’s one of the great mysteries.

The distinction between information and experience helps explain why a thesaurus can get a writer in trouble. The words in a thesaurus are arranged according to lexical content: words that convey similar information are grouped together without comment as to how they behave in the wild. Hopefully I’m stating the obvious here, but if you insist on using a thesaurus, use it only to remind you of words that you already know and fully understand. 

My first semester teaching freshman English at Vanderbilt (26 years ago!), a student turned in a paper that included these remarkable sentences: “Young people these days aren’t satisfied with the basics. They want toiletries, and they want it all.” How did that second sentence come to be? Well, as it turned out, my student had started with “They want luxuries,” but went looking in the thesaurus for synonyms and somehow followed a trail from “luxuries” to “toiletries.”

Of course, she wasn’t wrong. We all want toiletries, don’t we?

Old English and a New Cuss Word–On Word Choice

Think of every barnyard animal you know. Cow. Pig. Chicken. Sheep. Horse. Duck. Goose. Every one of those words derives from Old English (also known as Anglo-Saxon). if you were to kick around the farm with the poet who wrote Beowulf, the two of you would use the same words (or, in any case, very similar words) for all the animals you saw (except turkeys; turkeys didn’t come to England until five or eight centuries after the Beowulf poet died). And, by the way, you would even use all the same words for the male and female variations for each animal. Bull, boar, sow, rooster, hen, ram, ewe, mare, drake, and gander are all Old English words. The one exception is stallion, for reasons that will soon become apparent.

But when the farmer calls you in for dinner, your easy communication with the Beowulf poet will quickly break down. When farm animals move from the barnyard to the dinner table, they drop their Old English names. The cow is now beef. The pig is pork. The sheep is mutton. The chicken, duck, and gooseare now poultry.

If you’ve ever taken a class in the history of the English language, you already know why all the names for barnyard animals derive from Anglo-Saxon and all the names for meat are of Latin origin. In 1066 AD the Norman French, led by William the Conqueror, defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings. King Harold II took an arrow through the eyeball, and that was the end of the Anglo-Saxons’ rule over the island that was named for them (England=Angle-Land). 

The Anglo-Saxons didn’t go anywhere. The population of Britain was still overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon; but the ruling families were all French. The guy out in the barnyard or pasture taking care of the chickens and sheep and pigs and cows and ducks and geese was Anglo-Saxon; there was no reason for him to change the names he called the animals. But when those same animals were slaughtered and cooked for the French landowner and his family, they thoroughly enjoyed their boeuf or porc or moton or poulterie. (That Anglo-Saxon farmhand, by the way, wasn’t getting a lot of meat. He was eating a lot of beansand peas–both Old English words.)

Though the French ousted the Anglo-Saxon nobility in England, the French language never ousted the Anglo-Saxon language. Instead, Anglo-Saxon (Old English) absorbed thousands and thousands of French (that is to say, Latinate) words. For the most part, those new French words didn’t replace the English words. They were simply added to the English lexicon. So our language has countless word-pairs in which a word of Old English origin and a word of Latinate origin mean the same thing. Here are a few:

Anglo-Saxon OriginLatinate Origin
lightillumination
askinquire
answerreply
heartycordial
snakeserpent
recklessintrepid
belongingsproperty
followensue
wildsavage

Once you understand these dynamics, you understand a lot about English diction (or word choice, if you prefer the more Anglo-Saxon phrasing).

Say you have a vocabulary that includes both Anglo-Saxon and Latinate words (which you do). And say the servants and farm hands use the Anglo-Saxon words, but the noble families in the village use the Latinate words. Also, the clergy speak Latin, the law and all other government business is conducted in French and Latin, and if there are any scientists or philosophers in your town, they do their work in Latin too. Which is going to feel more respectable and intelligent and high-falutin to you? The Old English diction, or the Latinate diction?

It’s been 952 years since the Battle of Hastings, but we English speakers, when we want to sound smart and respectable, still trot out those Latinate words.

And yet…and yet.

It is true that the great majority of words in the English lexicon ultimately derive from Latin. Nevertheless, Anglo-Saxon is your native tongue. Here’s what I mean: depending on whom you ask or how your dictionary is arranged, anywhere from 2/3 to 3/4 of the words in an English dictionary derive from Latin or Greek. Scan a page or two of any dictionary with word origins, and you will see what I mean.

But of the 100 most commonly used words in English, guess how many come from Latin or Greek. 

Whatever you just guessed, it was too high. Of the 100 most-used words in English, exactly ZERO derive from Latin or Greek. They’re all Old English words. Oh, and the next 100 most commonly used words, #101-200 on the English hit parade–how many of those do you think derive from Latin or Greek? I’ve read different answers, but the highest I’ve ever seen is five. So even though our lexicon as a whole is about 70% Latinate or Greek, no more that 2.5% of the 200 words you use most often are non-Anglo-Saxon words.

You are a speaker of Old English (Anglo-Saxon) who also happens to know tons and tons of Latinate words. English speakers respond at a gut level to Old-English words. They feel like the stuff of the world. Before you started school, you navigated the world mostly with Old-English words: milk, mother, father, tree, dog, sun, moon, ball, dirt, house. 

You learned the Latinate words at school, from books. There are exceptions, and lots of them. flower, rock, and catall have Latin origins. But the fact that it has never occurred to you, or to me, that rock and cat are Latinate proves my point: these words feel homey and natural because they don’t feel like they could have come from Latin. The Latinate words I’m talking about are the ones that you learned for your Friday vocabulary tests–words that are just fancier synonyms for Anglo-Saxon words you already know. Osculate for kissIlluminate for light up.

Here’s an interesting exercise that demonstrates the different registers we associate with Old English words and Latinate words: Think of a cuss word. Any English cuss word will do. 

Do you have your cuss word? That word derives from Anglo-Saxon. The Beowulf poet would have known that word, or some closely related version of it. How do I know? I’m pretty sure I know all the cuss words, and I’ve looked up all their origins.

The cuss words are among the oldest words in the language. And nobody has ever had any success in getting new ones to stick. One of my sons tried when he was three or four. He started using naked as a cuss word. We’d be trying to leave the house, everybody scrambling for shoes and socks, maybe pants, and son would say, “Where’s my naked tennis shoes?” He had the syntax right, the inflection. Also, allow me to point out that naked is an Anglo-Saxon word. What I’m saying is that the kid had instincts. If ever a new cuss word had a chance, it was this one. But it never caught on, and my son abandoned the project before he even started kindergarten.

But I digress. Let us return to your Anglo-Saxon cuss word. Now, imagine you had some reason to speak to your grandmother about the topic covered by that cuss word. How would you phrase your remarks? I’ll give you a minute to ponder that one… Ok. Whatever words you chose, I’d say there’s about a 95% chance that they were of Latin or Greek origin.

Old English (Anglo-Saxon) and Norman French (Latinate) constitute two registers of the English language. The Anglo-Saxon register tends to be earthier, and the Latinate register tends to be “higher,” more abstract. You use these registers naturally, whether you think about the origins of the words you use or not. We English speakers have had 952 years of practice at it. No wonder we can do it without thinking. 

The ability to move between these multiple registers is one of the great gifts of this language of ours. English always gives us many options for saying the same thing–options that carry many shades of meaning.

And while it is true that I am suspicious of excessive Latinisms, there are plenty of ideas that you simply can’t communicate without that Latinate register. This essay, in which a writer tries to explain atomic theory using only words of Old-English origin illustrates this truth in hilarious fashion. 

Let me return to a point I made earlier: Anglo-Saxon is your native tongue. It is your reader’s native tongue. Yes, there are plenty of good reasons to use Latinate words, but I suggest that you rely on Anglo-Saxon (Old English) words as much as you can unless you have a good reason to do otherwise. Writing is an act of hospitality. It’s an act of welcome. And one way to welcome your reader is to speak in her native tongue when you can.

The writers of the King James Bible seemed to understand this truth. Check out these three verses, three of the most familiar in the whole Bible. I have underlined all the words of Latinate origin.

In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. 

The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

That’s 62 words. Only three of them are of Latin origin. 

Sometimes writing requires that we go up and get big ideas. We have the language for that. Sometimes–more often, I would suggest–the writer’s gift to the reader is to bring big ideas down to earth. Here’s to earthy language.

Love Thy Reader (Part 2)

Last week I wrote about loving your reader—flipping the switch from writing for what you can get from the reader to writing for what you can give to the reader. I didn’t quite get around to practicalities, but here in Part 2 I will attempt to show how loving your reader changes the way you think about every aspect of writing, right down to your grammar.

Loving Grammar

I’ve been putting together a new online course called Grammar for Writers. The driving principle of this course is that good grammar is a way to love your reader. I realize we don’t usually associate grammar with love. Even people who say they love grammar usually mean they love correcting other people’s grammar. (Did that sound judgmental? Well, if the Grammar Police are going to dish it out, they’d better learn how to take it too.) Consider the glee with which people collect and correct grammar and usage mistakes. Such grammar policing has nothing to do with love. I’m sure you’ve noticed how correct usage and spelling have been weaponized in online comments sections. If I can point out an opponent’s grammar and spelling mistakes, that feels like a pretty decent substitute for the moral high ground.

Too often we think of grammar in terms of correctness. Correctness tends to be about the writer. I strive for correct usage, not so much because I love my reader, but because I love myself and don’t want my reader to think I’m unintelligent or undereducated. 

Instead of thinking of grammar as a way of signaling something about me and my credentials, I have found it helpful to think of good grammar as a means of making life easier for the reader who might want to hear from me. A few weeks ago I wrote about the fact that the passive voice requires extra decoding work from your reader; I argued that when you ask more of your reader it’s important that you give them more. That’s an example of what I mean when I say that loving your reader is relevant even to the grammar you use.

A friend of mine recently wrote the following sentence in a piece she submitted to a well-known website:

Social media shows us tight circles of friends, inside jokes, and meet-ups we weren’t invited to, all providing fertile soil for jealousy.

Her editor pointed out that the word media is plural, not singular, so it would be more proper to write:

Social media show us tight circles of friends, inside jokes, and meet-ups we weren’t invited to, all providing fertile soil for jealousy.

The editor was correct. The word media is technically plural and technically should take a plural verb. But notice how the the grammar draws attention to itself in that clause, Social media show us. The reader pauses, steps out of the sentence, stops thinking about social media and inside jokes and jealousy altogether, and thinks, Social media show? Shouldn’t that be social media shows? No, social media is plural. I guess the writer got it right after all. 

Now, if you’re a certain kind of writer (I almost said certain kind of person), you may think this is an excellent outcome: the reader has thought about your skills as a grammarian and has judged you correct. If you are that kind of writer, you have your reward in full.

But if you care about your content and you care about your reader, and you want to introduce them to one another, you don’t want your readers to think about your grammar at all. You want them to stay in the sentence and think about social media, tight circles of friends, inside jokes, and jealousy. So you look for another way to skin that cat—a way that is grammatically correct without calling attention to the grammar. You might write something like: 

If you’ve spent any time on social media, you know about the tight circles of friends, the inside jokes, the meet-ups you weren’t invited to; all of this is fertile soil for jealousy.

That’s another lovely thing about English grammar: it is so flexible that it always gives you another way to love your reader.  

Loving Word Choice
I’ve gotten a number of questions lately about vocabulary and diction. This is another area in which it is helpful to discern your motives: are you choosing your words because you hope your reader will think or feel certain things about you, or are you choosing words that connect a reader you care about with content that you care about?

I appreciated the honesty of a writer who got in touch a couple of weeks ago, when “sophisticated fifth-graders” came up: 

I read the thesaurus when I actually was a quasi-sophisticated fifth grader, and I liked to try out new words in casual conversations with my big brothers. They often called me out. “Did you learn a new word today?” Even now, if I read an unfamiliar word in a novel, I stop and look it up, and often applaud the author. Basically, I have an abundant vocabulary, and I use it when I write. 

I’ve had occasions where I’ve used a word that I think is exactly right, but it might be a little obscure, and an editor will change it to something more commonplace. I understand — I don’t want to come across as a thesaurus-hound who tries to fancify my pedestrian prose — but I liked my word better!

There is nothing unusual about this writer’s struggle with word choice. I suspect that most of us who care about words could have written a similar couple of paragraphs, so I don’t wish to single this writer out for criticism. But do you see how much of this passage is concerned with how the writer comes across and what the writer wants? He doesn’t want to look like a thesaurus hound. He applauds authors for their obscure words and wants to use obscure words of his own. He pushes back on his editor because he likes his words better than the editor’s words. In these two paragraphs, there is a writer, there is an editor, there are even critics (the writer’s big brothers), but there is no reader. 

This writer (like the rest of us) needs to stop thinking about how he comes across and which words he likes to use, and he needs to start thinking about what helps connect the reader with content that the reader needs. When he does, that formidable vocabulary of his takes on a new significance. Now a big vocabulary represents more ways to give good gifts to his readers. Sometimes they need simple, straightforward words; sometimes they need to be stretched; sometimes they need metaphor and simile; sometimes they need vivid imagery; sometimes a well-placed five-dollar latinate word is just the thing. 

“I like my word better!” won’t convince an editor. But “I chose this word because it gives X and Y to the reader”—that’s a response an editor has to listen to. 

Killing Your Darlings

Somebody famously said, “Kill your darlings.” (Faulkner is usually credited as the source of that quotation, but this article from Slate suggests otherwise.) What are your darlings, and why should you kill them? In your writing, your darlings are those passages that cause you to suspect that you are a genius after all. You must be willing to sacrifice those darlings for the sake of the work—for the sake of the reader—”even when it breaks your egocentric scribbler’s heart,” as Stephen King put it.

But isn’t it possible that your writing that you love the best might actually be your best writing? It would be a shame to kill those darlings too. So how do you decide which darlings must be put to death? Once again, the principle “Love thy reader” comes to the rescue. 

Ask yourself why a darling passage is so dear to you. Is it dear because it makes you feel good about yourself? If so, feel good about yourself; you have written something beautiful or clever or funny or insightful. Rejoice. But that doesn’t mean you should foist it on the poor reader, who never signed up to affirm you or give meaning to your life.

But on the other hand, perhaps that passage is dear to you because it would be dear to your readers, giving them something that they couldn’t get for themselves. In that case, let that darling live. 

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