The writing tip that ruined me: Strict definitions

Mullet? Pinstripe shirt? Bare feet? Check. This  will be the least downloaded stock photo ever.

Mullet? Pinstripe shirt? Bare feet? Check. This will be the least downloaded stock photo ever.

Knowledge is power. But then again, ignorance is bliss. Hmm…

Colorful words are great. As a writer, I love to throw them out there willy-nilly. But what to do when some smarty-britches points out the strict definition of a word, and that definition is a little too strict for your purposes? Urgh. Over the last few years, I can think of two words that have been ruined for me. Now I’m going to pass that ruinous wisdom on to you… You’re welcome?

Max Brooks’ World War Z is a great book. I saw about 20 minutes of the Brad Pitt adaptation, and it seemed alright. But Brooks’ book is very different. It’s a bunch of snippets of narration that show how most of the planet’s most prominent nations handle a worldwide zombie outbreak. The cultural and historical ground that Brooks covers is way more interesting than the zombie action. Although some of the zombie scenes are pretty kick-ass as well.

But when Brooks speculates on how Russia would deal with a pandemic, he spends a few lines clarifying the true definition of ‘decimate.’ Decimate, as in ‘the Russian army decimated an entire town.’ Right? No, historically, ‘decimate’ means to kill one-in-ten. Doesn’t sound quite as apocalyptic does it?

So if you’re writing a sci-fi book about a super-contagious narcolepsy that wipes out more than 10% of a planet’s population (IDYLL, hopefully coming out soon), then you better do a find-and-replace if you use the word ‘decimate’ anywhere. Right?

The next word I can no longer use is ’nauseous.’ In the movie ‘Never Been Kissed’ Drew Barrymore plays a nerd who points out that ‘nauseous’ is an adjective that can refer to a gross scene or a gross smell but not a grossed-out person. So if you are describing a person in a state of nausea, you can’t use ‘nauseous.’ You should use ‘nauseated.’

‘Nauseated?’ Blech.

OK, now run along and never use these two words again.

Oh, but wait! It seems that Merriam and Webster and Roget have already dumbed down the lexicon to match common usage. So feel free to decimate the English language until you’re nauseous. Woohoo! Ignorance wins again!

Other writing tips that ruined me:
Prologues
Subjunctive Mood
Using ‘Said’

A writing tip that ruined me

This post goes out to anyone who ever felt the stirrings of a panic attack while reading Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. So many rules, so many words, so many snidely delivered suggestions! Sometimes I’ll take in a writing tip (not necessarily from Strunk and/or White), and the illogical complexity of it will turn me squishy, grammatically paralyzed. In the spirit of kvetching, I thought I’d share one of those paralyzing bits of advice with you.

You’re welcome?

Today’s writing tip that ruined me is the difference between alternate and alternative.

Alternate and alternative are often used as adjectives to mean the same thing: “available as another possibility.” To properly fit this definition, ‘alternate’ is an imperfect alternative. Alternate more properly means ‘every other’ (alternate Saturdays, or alternating Saturdays).

All of that makes pretty good sense, until I start thinking about a term like ‘alternate reality,’ which sounds so much better an ‘alternative reality.’ Or an ‘alternate juror,’ versus an ‘alternative juror.’

Urrgh! Luckily the erroneous synonymity of alternative and alternate is being slowly accepted as a part of our standard English lexicon. Ain’t that cool?