Tuesday, August 23, 2011

More Commonly Confused Words

On my website, I have a page dedicated to Commonly Confused Words. Finding them in novels I read helps me realize just how often writers don't understand what words mean. They may hear a word and, having no idea how it  is spelled, not realize that the wrong spelling totally changes the meaning of the sentence. Whatever they intend to communicate is lost.

A good example is the accolade, shouted as an encouragement, especially in Parliament in days long ago: "Hear, hear!" Written out properly, you can see it means, "Listen, listen!" (Meaning: This person has said something worthwhile with which I agree.) For the past few years, however, I've increasingly seen it written: "Here, here!" as in, "Present, present!" (Pronounced PREZ-ent, not pree-ZENT.) That, as you can see, has quite a different meaning, and renders the encouragement, at least in written form, meaningless. (Implication: The person has said something, and I'm in the same location.)

In a novel I'm currently reading (title and author omitted to protect the innocent, namely me!), I came across a word confusion I hadn't previously encountered. The protagonist discovered flecks of paint in a suspicious place. The author (who writes a very entertaining story, by the way) consistently refers to the flecks of paint as specs. "Specs" is a fairly recent word, being an abbreviation of specifications. The singular is spec, from specification. For writers, on spec is short for on speculation, which means you're writing something hoping an editor will buy it for a magazine. (The opposite of on spec is on assignment.)

What the author meant was that there were specks of paint, tiny little flecks of color that weren't where they were supposed to be. Instead, I thought of the qualities of the paint, not the size.

When we as writers use the wrong word, either through our mistake or (Heaven forbid!) our editor's, we run the risk of losing readers. While this author has not lost me, because the story is in a contemporary setting and it's otherwise so well written, had it been set before the 1960s, I'd have put it aside in a heartbeat. Spec in that case would not only have been a confused word but an anachronism. (See my last post.) Loyal readers are worth their weight in gold, now more than at any other time in history. So many other options are available to potential readers--film, TV, internet, etc.--that we want to do all we can to encourage them to read our stories. Taking the time to find the right word may not seem like much, but words are the tools of our craft. Using them correctly is the mark of a master craftsman.

What are your favorite (or least favorite) confused words?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Tackling Anachronisms

As a reader, I love entering the past. Letting go of the modern world, losing myself in whatever time frame the book is set--what a delight! I can completely forget the complexities and annoyances of the twenty-first century, unless----
-------SCREECH! CRASH!---------
I'm suddenly catapulted out of the past by an anachronism.

What's an anachronism, you ask? From the Greek ana not and chron time, an anachronism is a reference to some word, object, character or the like that doesn't belong in the story's time-frame. It can be something simple, like referring to the hero's cell phone, when the hero is living in 1977, or having a totally fashion-conscious heroine of an 1880 romance wearing a bustle.

Eliminating anachronisms from writing can be tricky. Half the time they sneak in without our even realizing it. Sometimes our proofreaders don't catch them. The editors can miss them. In fact, we may never know we've used one until the first letters from readers arrive. And readers can be really irate!

Some I've run across lately include using the honorific Ms. in historical novels before the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Ms. first came into more common usage. Finding a heroine referred to as Ms. Smith in a book set in the early 1900s throws me right out of the book. That's not to say I won't go back and read it, anyway, especially if I like the characters and the plot, but it makes it harder for me to let go and enjoy it the way I would if the heroine were Miss Smith before her marriage and Mrs. Jones afterward. (Or whatever the surnames are. You get the point.)

Honorifics should be easy. Something a little trickier is wildlife. I'm currently reading a mystery novel in a series set during the American Civil War (AKA the War Between the States). One of the two main protagonists was in a graveyard when she was startled by a flock of starlings. She wasn't as startled as I was! The first mating pair of European Starlings was brought to the United States by some misguided soul in 1891 or thereabouts, some thirty years after the novel was set. Now if the author had had the protagonist startled by a murder of crows, I wouldn't have put the book aside until I recovered from the experience.

Sometimes anachronisms are the result of our forgetfulness. We simply don't think about whether or not something was available or invented by a certain time, and even doing basic research may not reveal it to us. What can we do about it? Read books that were written in the time period, if available. (Obviously, it's harder to get hold of a novel written in Old Norse or ancient Greek.) Check into wildlife books, flora as well as fauna. (I still smile when I think about the American Robin in the 1960s movie "Mary Poppins." That isn't truly an anachronism, but a related faux pas.) If you can find them, read wildlife books from the time frame in which you are interested. Over time, migration patterns and nesting areas can change. Species that are extinct now may have once been prevalent, like the American Passenger Pigeon.

Technology is another bugbear. Yes, there were clocks in the Middle Ages. No, they did not have minute hands. And forget about second hands! Different parts of the world developed at their own pace. You might find steel swords in one part of the world and iron swords in a neighboring kingdom.

Hey, nobody ever said writing historicals was a walk in the park! It's a challenge, but if you're up to it, you may find it a truly rewarding one.

It isn't always easy to research the past on the internet, but it can be your first stop...on your way to the library!