Words wasted

“Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say infinitely when you mean very; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.” –CS Lewis

Yet another of the plagues of storytelling: so much blown-up language, action, and drama that there’s no room for subtlety. This is one reason I really struggle with dystopian novels. The world is ALWAYS ABOUT TO END and EVERYBODY WILL DIE. Yes, in all caps. I can’t stand a book that feels like it’s shouting at me all the way through, trying to get the message across with thesaurus words and big explosions instead of crafting a story that can quietly and effectively slip into your heart.

What are some of your favorite books that achieve that subtle expression? Jane Eyre is the first that comes to my mind, and I think Harry Potter does it quite nicely as well.


PS Because unsourced quotes make me crazy, I managed to track down the source of this one. It comes from CS Lewis’ Letters to Children, ed. Lyle W. Dorsett and Marjorie Lamp Mead. You can read the quote in context of its letter here at Letters of Note.

Let’s Talk Register

A few days ago, I ran across “How the Grinch Stole Grammar.” I laughed through the entire thing, and laughed for about a day afterward. More laughter than warranted? Probably. But I’m a nerd like that.

Granted, I appreciate a properly placed apostrophe as much as the next person, and it makes me cringe when I’m forced to leave out my beloved Oxford comma. And yes, I’ve made it my life’s ambition to explain the difference between a hyphen, an en dash, and an em dash to the world. Editing is one of my greatest pleasures in life, and I love it when someone hands me a paper and says, “Edit this.”

But if I’m going along in the day and someone says, “That’s something I just won’t put up with,” never ever ever would I pull out my grammar stick and shout, “No! That is something up with which you will not put!” Why not? Well, first of all, I want people to like me. Correcting other people’s spoken grammar is one of the quickest ways to get people to stop talking to you. But second of all, I would sound like a total twit. Seriously, who goes around saying “up with which I will not put”?

Take a look at your characters. Does your poor, uneducated peasant go around speaking like a lawyer? Is your cast of modern-day high schoolers using Victorian English? If they are, you’d better darn well have a reason for it. One of the best aspects of character development is a unique voice, which can often come from figuring out exactly how a character breaks the rules of the language. Do they use slang? Do they use words that “don’t exist,” like “ain’t” or “irregardless”? Is their speech full of hysterical malaprops, like good old Dogberry?

Of course, abusing prescriptive grammar should never come at the cost of readability. And you may well have a character who never forgets a “whom” or splits an infinitive. But if your nineteenth-century American dockworker is strutting around speaking the Queen’s English, you may have a problem. Listen to the world around you, how people (and not your English teacher) really talk. You just might be surprised at how much it changes your dialogue.