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Should authors obey their dictionaries?

Ross at Play
Updated:

There has been much heated discussion here on the desirability of editors using style guides when reviewing stories.

I am obviously only intending to use guides in accordance with authors' wishes.

After a (not yet very detailed) look at a style guide that generates extreme hostility (CMoS), I have only one serious reservation about using it.

I see numerous examples of this, but my only reservation is its implied dictate, "Thou shalt only use words as forms of speech included in dictionary definitions".

Two examples are dictionary definitions of 'like' and 'based (on)' state they are only adjectives, but in everyday usage they are frequently used in other ways.

'Like' is being used as a conjunction in, "It is that way, like it should be." 'Based on' is being used as an adverb in "(Something) is adjusted based on (some method)".

I see no reason to resist the inventiveness of speakers in using words as forms of speech other than their dictionary definition.

In contrast, I am comfortable adhering to dictates for the preferred preposition to use with verbs.

I have no problems following other things in a style guide, including the use of hyphens and capitals, how to abbreviate words, and when to use words for numbers. Consistency in using whatever style is chosen seems important, and I cannot see how to achieve that without using some style guide.

For punctuation I am struggling to find an approach suitable for fiction authors. There does seem to be many situations where commas are required in formal writing, but should be treated as optional by fictional authors. Apart from that, I have no problems following what various guides define as correct uses of punctuation.

I would appreciate comments about any other instances where authors feel that the dictates of guides are unsuitable for authors of fiction.

Switch Blayde

@Ross at Play

"It is that way, like it should be."


That's not a style issue. It's a grammar issue. If you want to be grammatically correct, it should be "It is that way as it should be."

The famous use of "like" over the correct "as" was the slogan "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should." It should have been "as a cigarette."

But sometimes "as" sounds too formal so I would use "like" even though it's grammatically incorrect. For me there's a more striking one that I do wrong on purpose.

"He was bigger than she" is grammatically correct, but I would use the colloquial flavor of it even though it's grammatically wrong — "He was bigger than her."

I had a Pakistani girl point that error out to me, but I elected to go with the colloquial (grammatically incorrect) version.

Of course we're talking narrative here. In dialogue, anything goes depending on how the character speaks.

sejintenej

My immediate reaction to the thread name was "of course not".
Straight off I have two reasons:
Even with the so-called English language there are spelling variations and an author needs to write for his/her majority audience. On SOL that appears to be American English (OK so even you have regional variations) so I know to swap s and z and omit letters in certain situations but I don't have an American dictionary - problem 1)

Secondly there are differences in grammar and also in the use of words as SB has pointed out. To that I would issue the riposte:
language is evolving minute by minute - what was in the text books weeks ago is out of date. Should authors wait for others to move a language forward or should they lead the pack? Provided that what the author writes is easily comprehensible to the vast majority of readers and is not clearly wrong then let it be.
(I include the proviso because of all the spelling mistakes produced by an often unthinking overuse of built-in spell checkers)

Replies:   Not_a_ID
Not_a_ID

@sejintenej

Provided that what the author writes is easily comprehensible to the vast majority of readers and is not clearly wrong then let it be.

This. So long as it doesn't confuse the reader, you should be fine.

Although when I saw the topic, I thought it would be discussing "invented words" and ensuring you spell them consistently.

Ernest Bywater

@Ross at Play

"Thou shalt only use words as forms of speech included in dictionary definitions".


1. But which dictionary, and which definition in it?

For example, I have a number or printed dictionary that do not list the word decimate as an alternative for the word devastate, while a many US of the on-line dictionaries do.

2. Does that also allow you to use words that don't appear in some dictionaries, but do appear in other dictionaries as slang or colloquialisms, or a regional usage?

For example: drug as the past tense of drag.

(Just playing a little devil's advocate here.)

Ross at Play
Updated:

@Ernest Bywater

My question assumes your (large and respected) dictionary includes the meaning you want to use. If that states (a) the word can only be used as an adjective, or (b) what preposition should be used with a verb; do you accept those limitations?

My thoughts (for writers of fiction) are:
(a) no, or not necessarily
(b) yes

Crumbly Writer
Updated:

Ha-ha. This reminds me of my ongoing conflict with lulu over their capitalization rules, specifically, how should I capitalize the word 'de?

One of my chapter titles, based on one character's speech patterns, is: "Hashin' Out All 'de Details". I capitalized the "a" in "All", but do I capitalize "'de", as it's not on lulu's list of non-capitalized words, or do I break their rule because it's a stand in for "the", and if I do, what do I say when they challenge my decision?

When you get into 'rules' like this, it becomes tricky slicing and dicing them in detail. In general, dialogue is separate, since it reflects the way each character speaks, rather than what's proper English. But once you've made that concession, what about POV? What if the narrator is a character themselves, then the grammar and the narration are adjusted to fit their speech pattern, rather than using a 'stilted' formal grammar guidelines.

In many instances, it comes down to what you can 1) convince a publisher to accept, and 2) what readers will, or rather, what they won't reject by tossing the book on page 12!

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@Ernest Bywater


For example: drug as the past tense of drag.

(Just playing a little devil's advocate here.)


Don't forget "dove" as the past tense of "dive."

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Switch Blayde

@Ross at Play

My thoughts (for writers of fiction) are:
(a) no, or not necessarily
(b) yes


My answer is (c) maybe

It depends. I would suggest you start with proper grammar — but then listen to what you wrote. Just like contractions are now acceptable (and maybe preferred) in fiction narrative because it sounds better (less stuffy; flows better; reads easier), the same is true for other cases.

As I said before, I will not write "than she." It just sounds wrong to me even though I know it's right. As to like/as, most times I will do it right by using "as," but sometimes it just sounds better (to me) to do it wrong with "like" so I use "like."

Who says a word can only be used as an adjective? How many times have you seen "pistoned" used as a verb in a sex story? Many nouns have a verb version, but "piston" isn't one of them. Does that mean the author cannot turn it into a verb? He can.

So if you're writing a school paper or a business letter, listen to the dictionary. If you're an author of fiction, do what sounds right for your story. Saying that, you better have a good reason to break the grammar rule.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Switch Blayde
Updated:

@Crumbly Writer


what about POV? What if the narrator is a character themselves, then the grammar and the narration are adjusted to fit their speech pattern, rather than using a 'stilted' formal grammar guidelines.


True in a 1st-person story because the narrative is equivalent to dialogue. But not in a 3rd-person story.

Crumbly Writer
Updated:

@Switch Blayde

@Ernest

For example: drug as the past tense of drag.


@Switch

Don't forget "dove" as the past tense of "dive."I drug the drugged dove who dove into the lake back onto dry land?

I drug the drugged dove who dove into the lake back onto dry land?

Replies:   Capt Zapp
Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

So if you're writing a school paper or a business letter, listen to the dictionary. If you're an author of fiction, do what sounds right for your story. Saying that, you better have a good reason to break the grammar rule.

And 'it sounds better to me?' is a good (enough) reason? I'm sure there are scores of people who'll take an instant exception to that.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

True in a 1st-person story because the narrative is equivalent to dialogue. But not in a 3rd-person story.

It depends on the story. It's most often done in 1st person, but I don't believe it's a requirement. I started my "Catalyst" in 1st person for that precise reason, but found it an unyieldly compromise, so abandoned it mid-way through the story (book 4), only to end the story by revealing the narrator (who'd changed from 1st person to 3rd to better tell her story) was actually an unacknowledged part of the story (a future child of one of the main characters).

Granted, I fumbled the ball on that one, only learning belatedly that I couldn't handle writing in 1st person, despite it being the preferred method for writing that type of story, but I'm not sure you can categorically state that no character driven story can ever be written in a 3rd person perspective.

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Switch Blayde

@Crumbly Writer

And 'it sounds better to me?' is a good (enough) reason? I'm sure there are scores of people who'll take an instant exception to that.


Yes, it's a good enough reason. It's my name on the story.

Ernest Bywater

@Ross at Play

If that states (a) the word can only be used as an adjective, or (b) what preposition should be used with a verb; do you accept those limitations?


The key aspect is the meaning, and what people expect it to mean. Some words retain their meaning while having their grammatical function vary with certain types of usage. I don't let that become a straight-jacket. However, if the usage I'm applying is a slang or colloquial one I make sure to show that and the usage meaning in the context of the meaning, it's like, well, ya know, how it goes. That's the greatest advantage and strength of vernacular English, it's not as rigid as Formal English.

Formal English is a stiff and rigid as the maitre d'hotel at the Royal Yacht Club, while Vernacular English is like the hobo spooning stew from a pot into cans for people around the fire then hands them out while saying, "Get this into ya." Both do the same function, but one is rigid and one is free flowing.

Replies:   sejintenej
Ernest Bywater

@Crumbly Writer

but I'm not sure you can categorically state that no character driven story can ever be written in a 3rd person perspective.


I agree with you on this, CW. I must be one of the biggest advocates of first person stories here, but I've written character driven stories in the 3rd person, and am in the middle of writing some others.

sejintenej

@Ernest Bywater

For example, I have a number or printed dictionary that do not list the word decimate as an alternative for the word devastate, while a many US of the on-line dictionaries do.

I don't know Strine but any dictionary which equates devastate with decimate should be flung into the furthest reaches of Lucifer's furnace. The words have vastly different meanings.

Decimate (from the legionnaire's action of killing every tenth soldier) means the death of a large number of people. Devastate refers 1) to serious damage (to property caused by a hurricane, earthquake, etc. ) 2) to the mental anguish felt by someone(s) who feel(s) a loss of something.

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
sejintenej

@Ernest Bywater

The key aspect is the meaning, and what people expect it to mean. Some words retain their meaning while having their grammatical function vary with certain types of usage.

The difficulty here is with words which change their officially accepted meaning.
A lady famous for enjoying life could be honourably called gay but try calling her that now that the Americans have got hold of the word!

BTW I like your RYS simile

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
sejintenej

@Switch Blayde


what about POV? What if the narrator is a character themselves, then the grammar and the narration are adjusted to fit their speech pattern, rather than using a 'stilted' formal grammar guidelines.

True in a 1st-person story because the narrative is equivalent to dialogue. But not in a 3rd-person story.


Sorry, SB but that simple riposte seen by itself is not right.
In the first person the text could be an action - "I walked down to the road" OR speech such as I said "whatever". No way is that first example a bit of dialogue

Ernest Bywater

@sejintenej

The words have vastly different meanings.


I agree with you, but since the mid 1970s when a US live TV news reported used decimate when he should have used devastate to describe the destruction of an alpine village in an avalanche, the US media have been warping the media to cover their blunders. Now they change meanings of words based on votes.

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/decimate

Simple Definition of decimate

: to destroy a large number of (plants, animals, people, etc.)

: to severely damage or destroy a large part of (something)

https://www.ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=decimate

dec·i·mate (dĕsə-māt′)
Share: Tweet
tr.v. dec·i·mat·ed, dec·i·mat·ing, dec·i·mates
1. To destroy or kill a large part of (a group of people or organisms).
2. Usage Problem
a. To inflict great destruction or damage on: The storm decimated the region.
b. To reduce markedly in amount: a profligate heir who decimated his trust fund.
3. To select by lot and kill one in every ten of (a group of soldiers).
[Latin decimāre, decimāt-, to punish every tenth person, from decimus, tenth, from decem, ten; see dek in the Appendix of Indo-European roots.]
dec′i·mation n.
Usage Note: Decimate originally referred to the killing of every tenth person, a punishment used in the Roman army for mutinous legions. Today this meaning is commonly extended to include the killing of any large proportion of a population. In our 2005 survey, 81 percent of the Usage Panel accepts this extension in the sentence The Jewish population of Germany was decimated by the war, even though it is common knowledge that the number of Jews killed was much greater than a tenth of the original population. This is an increase from the 66 percent who accepted this sentence in our 1988 survey. However, the Panel is less accepting of usages that extend the meaning to include large-scale destruction other than killing, as in The supply of fresh produce was decimated by the nuclear accident at Chernobyl. Some 36 percent accepted this sentence in 2005, up from 26 percent in 1988, but still a decided minority.

Dominions Son

@sejintenej

In the first person the text could be an action - "I walked down to the road" OR speech such as I said "whatever". No way is that first example a bit of dialogue


Regardless of the POV, narration can be seen as the narrator speaking to the reader. This is particularly true for 1st person POV. It is still true even if what is being narrated is action rather than character dialog.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@sejintenej

A lady famous for enjoying life could be honourably called gay but try calling her that now that the Americans have got hold of the word!

Hey, don't blame us Americans for that usage. It's dated back to (I believe) the 15th Century, though it's only recently (within the last century) become accepted as common usage (i.e. quoted in dictionaries).

The other key to using dictionaries is that they are the LAST ones to accept a word, long after (in some cases decades after) it's been accepted by everyone else! Since they've fallen so far behind in acknowledging changes, they're now adding words so frequently most go completely out of use within a couple years of their acceptance by the various dictionaries--which doesn't help their standing with the public at all!

Crumbly Writer

@Dominions Son

Regardless of the POV, narration can be seen as the narrator speaking to the reader. This is particularly true for 1st person POV. It is still true even if what is being narrated is action rather than character dialog.

A common usage of character speech patterns in 3rd person is when the narrator is only named in the final scenes of a book. Prior to that, the only clues to who they are is their phrasing of terms and their knowledge (or perspective) of the unfolding events.

Switch Blayde

@sejintenej


Sorry, SB but that simple riposte seen by itself is not right.
In the first person the text could be an action - "I walked down to the road" OR speech such as I said "whatever". No way is that first example a bit of dialogue


I don't understand your comment.

With 1st-person, the narration is like dialogue. After all, the 1st-person narrator is telling you a story so it can be written as informally as the character speaks in dialogue. Think "Huck Finn."

So the action of "I walked down to the road" for a certain 1st-person narrator could be "I walked da road."

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer
Updated:

@Switch Blayde


With 1st-person, the narration is like dialogue. After all, the 1st-person narrator is telling you a story so it can be written as informally as the character speaks in dialogue. Think "Huck Finn."

So the action of "I walked down to the road" for a certain 1st-person narrator could be "I walked da road."


Unless the 1st person narrator tells you about someone else (ex: "John walked into the bar with a Priest, a Rabbi and an Iman.")

Replies:   Dominions Son
Dominions Son

@Crumbly Writer

John walked into the bar with a Priest, a Rabbi and an Iman.")


My favorite walks into a bar joke:

A man walks into a bar and says "Ouch!"

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Switch Blayde

@Crumbly Writer

The other key to using dictionaries is that they are the LAST ones to accept a word, long after (in some cases decades after) it's been accepted by everyone else!


If you haven't seen the movie "Akeelah and the Bee" you should. The reason for its reference here, though, is because a girl from the ghetto is coached by someone who was the head of the English department at one of the big Calif universities. When she used ghetto talk he said he'd stop coaching her (for a spelling bee) if she doesn't use words in the dictionary.

Some time later, she used "dis" so he called her on it and was about to throw her out. Then she showed him that it was in the dictionary.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Dominions Son

My favorite walks into a bar joke:

A man walks into a bar and says "Ouch!"

In that case, let me modify my joke:

John walked into the bar with a Priest, a Rabbi and an Iman. "Ouch!" "Yeow!" "Holy Fuck!"

Is that better?

Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

Some time later, she used "dis" so he called her on it and was about to throw her out. Then she showed him that it was in the dictionary.

And she probably spent quite a bit of time scouring the dictionary to find the single word she could catch him with!

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@Crumbly Writer

And she probably spent quite a bit of time scouring the dictionary to find the single word she could catch him with!


She didn't try to catch him. She used the word because it was a real word, but he was a stuffy English professor who didn't know it was now in the dictionary (after being used as slang in the ghetto).

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

She didn't try to catch him. She used the word because it was a real word, but he was a stuffy English professor who didn't know it was now in the dictionary (after being used as slang in the ghetto).

I did that kind of thing myself in high school. I'd get a real anal twat of a teacher, and I'd pull little stunts like that. She might just have gotten lucky, but it's more likely she knew what she was doing and was trying to teach him a lesson (which he rightly deserved).

Replies:   PotomacBob
PotomacBob

@Switch Blayde

The people who wrote the Winston ad knew before it ever aired once that it did not fit the English rules of grammar. They didn't care. They weren't trying to pass an English test. They were trying to cell cigarettes. The ad was very effective.

Replies:   Switch Blayde  tppm
PotomacBob

@Crumbly Writer

I remember that Dizzy Dean, a baseball player turned announcer (back in the Dark Ages), received a letter from an English teacher criticizing him for using "ain't" on the air.
His reply:
"Lady, people who ain't sayin' ain't ain't eatin'. I make $60,000 a year. How much do you make?" ($60,000 was a lot of money in the Dark Ages.)

Capt Zapp

@Crumbly Writer

I drug the drugged dove who dove into the lake back onto dry land?


Makes perfect sense to me.

Switch Blayde

@PotomacBob

The people who wrote the Winston ad knew before it ever aired once that it did not fit the English rules of grammar. They didn't care. They weren't trying to pass an English test. They were trying to cell cigarettes. The ad was very effective.


That was my point. They thought it sounded better so they did it grammatically incorrect.

samuelmichaels

@Switch Blayde

The famous use of "like" over the correct "as" was the slogan "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should." It should have been "as a cigarette."

No it shouldn't. To quote Steven Pinker, Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary

Like many usage controversies, the brouhaha over like a cigarette should is a product of grammatical ineptitude and historical ignorance.
...
The R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company was confessing to the wrong crime; its slogan was perfectly grammatical. Writers are free to use either like or as, mindful only that as is a bit more formal, and that the Winston-tastes-good controversy became such a bloody shirt in the grammar wars that readers may mistakenly think the writer has made an error.

sejintenej

@Crumbly Writer

Change of meaning of "gay"

Hey, don't blame us Americans for that usage. It's dated back to (I believe) the 15th Century, though it's only recently (within the last century) become accepted as common usage (i.e. quoted in dictionaries).

My comment was that a perfectly acceptable and very old word with an accepted meaning was unnecessarily purloined and used in a very different and difficult manner

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@sejintenej

My comment was that a perfectly acceptable and very old word with an accepted meaning was unnecessarily purloined and used in a very different and difficult manner

It's still perfectly acceptable to claim that you're "gay with joy", or even as one recent gay semi-celebrity insisted, "I'm gay for hats!" It's not as common as it was years ago--mostly because people are worried about being misunderstood--a significant issue in using any word--and people have historically sniggered over your usage, it's not a new phenomenon.

If a word choice causes more confusion than it resolves, it generally considered a poor word choice. "Happy" or "joyful" describe "gay" perfectly adaquately, so why use an over-the-hill term which hasn't been used widely since the 50s comedy routines?

Replies:   REP
REP

@Crumbly Writer

so why use an over-the-hill term which hasn't been used widely since the 50s comedy routines?


shock value.

Not_a_ID

and/or the humor/novelty of using the now "more archaic" usage of the term and watching the look of confusion pass over people's faces as they process it.

Replies:   Dominions Son
Dominions Son

@Not_a_ID

the humor/novelty of using the now "more archaic" usage of the term and watching the look of confusion pass over people's faces as they process it.


And if you use it in a online story/forum you are going to see their faces how?

Replies:   Not_a_ID
Not_a_ID

@Dominions Son

And if you use it in a online story/forum you are going to see their faces how?


Vivid imagination, or camera hacks of their laptops?

tppm

@PotomacBob

They didn't care. They weren't trying to pass an English test. They were trying to cell cigarettes.


And celling is what should be done with cigarettes, but I suspect the copy writers at Winston's advertising agency were trying to sell them.

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