Discussion Board

Topic: Misused words, phrases, and poor research

From: Kelly
Location: Everett, WA
Date: 05/23/2009

Okay, I'm assuming some budding writers read this forum, and so am posting this here, with, of course, the permission of Mr. Bear.

One of the things that really bugs me is when authors yank me out of a story by misusing words, common phrases, or by not doing their research.

A common and simple one regarding words is the use of modifiers on the word "unique." "Almost," or "nearly" I can accept, but things like "very unique" I cannot. "Unique" means, literally, one-of-a-kind; the only one on Earth. Something is either one-of-a-kind, or it is not. It can't be "very one-of-a-kind." If you are tempted to say "very unique," say instead "very unusual."

Next are misused phrases, like "He vowed never to step foot in that place again," or "chomping at the bit." Both are common, and both are wrong. These are only two examples, but I could go on and on. Please endeavor to get these right.

Regarding everything else,please do your research. For example, many authors know that when it comes to music, "flat" is bad. Furthermore, they know that "sharp" is the opposite of "flat." Therefore, they think, "sharp" must be good, which leads to sentences like "Every note was sharp, and clear as a bell."

Without giving you a music lesson right here, flat means below the optimal pitch, and sharp means above it. BOTH are bad, and to the trained ear, sharp is often the worse of the two.

Then there are technical things. Stephen King, for instance, knows almost nothing about vehicles, and proves this repeatedly, even though he frequently writes about cars. One does not, for example, "shift the engine into low."

Anyway, rant over, I suppose. As the old saying goes, write what you know. However, if you write a good story, occasionally your characters will take you into territory you don't know. So, for example, if you find your characters leading you onto a sailboat, throwing a few words in like "port," "starboard," "anchor," binnacle," and having your characters say things like "Aaarrrh" probably isn't going to cut it. Research the terms, or have your researcher do it, and become familiar with them. Then, when you write about them, you can do so with confidence, and your readers will believe you.

If you are lucky, you will garner some intelligent readers. Don't drive them away by venturing into their areas of expertise and then convincing them you're an idiot.



Re: Misused words, phrases, and poor research

From: Greg Bear
Date: 05/23/2009

All right, Kelly, I'll bite (or chomp): what's the proper phrase for pulling or rotating the shift lever into a lower gear on an automatic transmission? (Or, in Christine's case, a Heimlich-Teufel Planetomatic Hydroclutch Vroom transmission.)

Shifting

From: Kelly
Location: Everett, WA
Date: 05/24/2009

Well, Greg, the problem is not with the shift lever. It's that you don't shift the engine, you shift the transmission. :)

Re: Misused words, phrases, and poor research

From: patrick
Location:
Date: 05/26/2009

Um, while I agree in general, and commend you for explaining yourself in most of your points, you didn't for those phrases you mentioned. What's wrong with and about them?

Also, the 'sharp' thing I think is meant in a timbral sense, rather than pitch - though arguably most writers....um, most people....don't know dick about music, sound, and acoustical physics. Incidentally, it's obvious Greg did his homework for SONGS OF EARTH AND POWER. Which has continued to bear....fruit.

Shifting

From: Greg Bear
Date: 05/29/2009

Hmm... point taken, but I do hope that most readers won't throw the book across the room! I've made similar mis-phrasings in my career. But if you were my copyeditor, no doubt I'd follow your advice! Now--challenge: find similar misphrasings in Dickens or Joyce. (No, not Finnegans Wake...)

Re: Misused words, phrases, and poor research

From: Greg Bear
Date: 05/29/2009

Fruits of the loom, no doubt!

Re: Misused words, phrases, and poor research

From: Kelly
Location: Everett, WA
Date: 05/30/2009

Patrick,

Well, I sort of hoped that people who misuse phrases like these would be inspired to look them up, but since you ask, I'll explain these two.

"Step foot" is not grammatically incorrect, of course, it's just that the traditional phrase is "set foot." I am reminded of the bloodbath in the elevator in one of the "Die Hard" movies, when the hero realized he was with the bad guys because of their misuse of common phrases. (Yes, some of them used European versions, but they were posing as Americans.)

"Chomp" merely means to chew, granted, perhaps noisily and vigorously, but "champ" means to show impatience due to delay or restraint. When someone says "...chomping at the bit," they mean someone is ready and impatient to do something, and champ, in this case, is the more appropriate word, as well as being traditional.

Regarding "sharp" and timbre, a short, loud noise like a gunshot could certainly be described as a "sharp noise." However, no musician I know would ever apply the term "sharp" to the tone or timbre of anything musical. For that we have words like "shrill," "bright," "tinny," or "brittle."

I've not yet read "Songs of Earth and Power," but now it seems I shall have to. :)

Shifting

From: Kelly
Location: Everett, WA
Date: 05/30/2009

Greg,

Ah, now that is a challenge, indeed. Not only to spot misused phrases, but to spot them in literature from other eras. I've read Dickens, of course, but not terribly recently. As I recall, the last I read, or rather re-read, was "The Prince and the Pauper," and I think I do remember there being at least one in there. Something involving their residence on the bridge, I think.

I assume you mean James Joyce? I must confess, I don't believe I've ever read him. Where would you recommend I start?

Shifting

From: Greg Bear
Date: 05/31/2009

DUBLINERS is excellent and straightforward, particularly "The Dead." ULYSSES is magnificent and a challenge, but worthy of the effort. FINNEGANS WAKE is the Mount Everest of "novels," a book you never stop reading, even after many run-throughs.

Re: Misused words, phrases, and poor research

From: Cheryl
Location: Lynnwood, WA
Date: 05/31/2009

An open invitation to (local)readers who cannot tolerate writers' deliberate misuse of phrases, colloquialisms, or other 'creative' abuses of grammar...the University of Washington has several physical science and engineering libraries filled with technically and mechanically accurate scientific journals. You may find a new appreciation of the fine line between art and science.

The map room, located in the basement of Suzzalo, has USGS maps of Mars. Additionally, the research of Prof. Roger Buick may be of particular interest to some.

Re: Misused words, phrases, and poor research

From: Greg Bear
Date: 05/31/2009

Highly recommended--it's a beautiful library and resource. (But I'm not sure writers deliberately misuse words and phrases... Just finishing revising/inputting copyedits to a manuscript now, and thank goodness for good copyeditors!)

Re: Misused words, phrases, and poor research

From: Bill Goodwin
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Date: 06/01/2009

I'd even stay clear of "nearly unique," it's like "nearly infinite" or "more certain every moment."

With increasing frequency I hear grating mispronunciations like mischie"VIOUS" and "ZOO"ological in the mouths of newscasters, as well as epidemic misuse of "Begging the question."

Mistakes in classic literature? Hamlet's taking "arms against a sea of troubles" and Captain Kirk's "to boldly go!"

Re: Misused words, phrases, and poor research

From: Bill Goodwin
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Date: 06/01/2009

Another peeve: I've never heard anything but "condominiums" when of course the proper plural is "condominia," and double-plurals like "medias" and "encyclopedias" bug me, too.

Patrick: "Bear Fruit," I love it! An alternate blog title, if Greg should tire of Kicky Baby?

Checked out the University of Washington Materials Engineering page. Nanoparticles, scorpion venom, metalic foam...time, more time!(USGS maps of Mars I've got on my wall--doesn't everybody?)

For Goodness Sake! Please leave the Writer Alone!

From: Andrew Carpenter
Location: France
Date: 06/01/2009

Dear Greg,

I firmly believe that use and misuse of the "bloody" written word adds spice and character..and your use of "english" is probably why I've been reading your stories for nearly 20 years.

I originally commented on this issue as a kind of jest..however; it seems to have been taken up by all and sundry as a critical remark.

From my point of view Greg, I want your immagination to fly like an Eagle and entertain me for a third decade...by the way its a gear stick! (in England)

Cheers

Andrew

Re: Misused words, phrases, and poor research

From: Greg Bear
Date: 06/02/2009

"Nearly unique" fits in with "nearly pregnant."

One of these days, we will learn how to split the infinitive and unleash tremendous power...

Re: Misused words, phrases, and poor research

From: Greg Bear
Date: 06/02/2009

Not like these maps, I'm willing to bet... Cheryl, description?

For Goodness Sake! Please leave the Writer Alone!

From: Greg Bear
Date: 06/02/2009

Better to be shiftless than stickless?

Re: Misused words, phrases, and poor research

From: patrick
Location:
Date: 06/03/2009

"Better to be shiftless than stickless?"

Oh, Greg.


On 'champ': that's gotta be pure British english there. Never heard of it. There's a certain indirectness that's cool - but there's a certain redneck-ness to some am english that's just tasty. If you enjoy the flavour - and I do.



"Patrick: "Bear Fruit," I love it! An alternate blog title, if Greg should tire of Kicky Baby? "

Ha, no shit, huh? Alas, it was rather spontaneous. Often the best.


"Regarding "sharp" and timbre, a short, loud noise like a gunshot could certainly be described as a "sharp noise." However, no musician I know would ever apply the term "sharp" to the tone or timbre of anything musical. For that we have words like "shrill," "bright," "tinny," or "brittle." "

There are sharp sounds, and sharp pitches*. Easily, the context is presented. Nails on board could be shrill. A 'sharp' sound is something very sudden, with a tight sonic envelope.

*Incidentally, you do know that, ultimately, nothing is sharp or flat. It's completely contextual to the tuning system in use - as well as the harmonic system used and the voice-leading in a particular piece, not to mention the instrumentation used.

Small story: one of my exes was a violist. She was practicing this William Walton concerto, and she got to a passage where I could tell this cadencing pitch at the end of an upward figure was flat. I don't think I'd heard the piece before. I hadn't heard the recording she had for reference. She said, "that's how it's written!" I said it was wrong, and had her play me the recording she had, to see how this guy did it. He did exactly as I suggested, and she was all "OH". Cos it sounded so sweet. Given the context of the composer and the work, it was obvious that was a desired effect in the texture.

Re: Misused words, phrases, and poor research

From: Bill Goodwin
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Date: 06/03/2009

"Yes, it's true. This man has no shift."

The Interim Adverb: I thought "nearly pregnant" was nonsense...then I read Darwin's Radio!

To Infinitive And Beyond!

--Bill

Re: Misused words, phrases, and poor research

From: Bill Goodwin
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Date: 06/03/2009

Not worth your time but my honor is at stake: Encyclopedia is from the Greek (enkiklios paideia, literally [well-] rounded education) and so "encyclopedias" (or better, "encyclopaedias") is right after all--OOPS.

"Nearly unique" fits in with "nearly pregnant."

From: Kelly
Location: Everett, WA
Date: 06/06/2009

Greg,

Okay, I can maybe buy that. Barely. However, it could be thought of as correct to say, for instance, if there were only two of a particular item in the entire world, that one of them is "nearly one of a kind," which is effectively the same as saying "nearly unique." Whereas a thing simply can't be more than unique, so one cannot use modifiers such as "very."

From the top side down, a thing is unique, or it is not; from the bottom side up, it still approaches uniqueness from varying degrees. I think it is only an either/or situation depending on the direction from which you approach it.

And, by the way, I also believe the "in" in "fits in with" is superfluous. :P

Re: Misused words, phrases, and poor research

From: Summer Blackhorse
Location: Portland Oregon
Date: 06/08/2009

Thanks for the information on what not to use. NASA and USGS maps of Mars should be on everyone's walls.

Re: Misused words, phrases, and poor research

From: Greg Bear
Date: 06/09/2009

"Back off, man. I'm a linguist!" (To those who haven't seen GHOSTBUSTERS recently, we're paraphrasing Bill Murray.)

Re: Misused words, phrases, and poor research

From: Bill Goodwin
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Date: 06/12/2009

Giggling idiotically ("When someone asks if you're a linguist, YOU SAY YES!").

Maps of ALL the solar system's bodies should be on the walls, of schoolrooms if not houses! Do Gen-Xers realize what's happened during their lifetimes? (Google Mars on floor-to-ceiling screens, THEN I'll be happy!)

And so back to the thread...the opening crawl of "Revenge of the Sith" refers to "solar systems" (plural) when it should be star systems...grumble, grumble. Millions of dollars, but no one to tell the writers there's only ONE solar system (and it's not in the movie!)?

Ah, well. Someone will release a proof-reading virus and future downloads will magically correct themselves. Frightening thought, actually. Mr. Carpenter makes a good point about the bloody word. "Y'gotta sin t'git saved!"

Re: Misused words, phrases, and poor research

From: Bigmouth
Location: http://eyemsick.blogspot.com/
Date: 06/13/2009

Although I'm not a grammar or usage Nazi, I am bothered by the erroneous conflation of "beg the question" with "raise the question.

Okay, here's another

From: Kelly
Location: Everett, WA
Date: 06/15/2009

I'm not sure if this one is a result of poor research, or just plain human stupidity.

Having grown up in Edmonds, Washington, I also grew up in and around boats. I have only been seasick once, and that was under some pretty ridiculous circumstances, in which I was in a far too-large drysuit, with far too little weight, so I found myself bobbing up and down in choppy waters, being shaken like a soda can.

But what does almost every character in a book do, when they start to feel a bit seasick? They dash below and dive into a bunk, and then are heartily sick. This is exactly the opposite of what they should do. While I am not very susceptible to seasickness, I have experienced some queasiness while sitting below in rough seas. And, did I then climb into a bunk? Hell no. I went out on deck, where my eyes could tell my brain the same thing my inner-ears were telling it. And then I was no longer queasy.

So, why do characters almost always go below when they start to feel ill? Because the author has never been on a boat, or because that is just what most people do? Feel sick, crawl into bed.

I'm really not sure on this one.

Re: Misused words, phrases, and poor research

From: patrick
Location:
Date: 06/17/2009

Hey, Bill, kids these days don't even know their blood type. I've found a lot of adults don't know, either. Like, they've forgotten or something, cos I KNOW every kid was told in every year of grade school, when the whole class went to the nurse for their annual check-up (at least in the 70s and early 80s), what theirs was.

Okay, here's another

From: Greg Bear
Date: 07/28/2009

Don't come knocking if the boat is rocking...? Makes sense, Kelly.

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