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Pet peeves on parade, part XV: speak to me, protagonist. Or blink twice to let me know that you’re alive.

April 11th, 2011

After yesterday’s unusually lengthy post, even by my standards (which is saying something), I thought I’d limit myself this evening to a light, sparkling addendum to last time’s intensive session of nit-picking. It will be a struggle, I fear; well-constructed dialogue is a subject upon which I, like Millicent the agency screener, hold quite passionate views.

Why work ourselves into a lather over dialogue, you ask, instead of, say, punctuation placement? Well, while I, for one, have been known to wax eloquent about our friend, the humble comma, its placement is largely a technical issue: it’s rare that a great new writer will stake her claim to fame upon her bold and innovative use of commas.

Seriously, would you want your name to be passed down to posterity as King of the Commas? Wowing the literary world with an unusually good ear for dialogue, on the other hand, is a goal to which many a fledgling writer of fiction and/or memoir aspires. It’s certainly a worthwhile one: writing dialogue well requires not merely a strong sense of what people actually say and the rhythms in which they say it, but also the creativity to pepper the dialogue with enough originality that it won’t seem ho-hum.

Yet for some reason that perpetually escapes me, even writers who pride themselves on their fresh, original notions and execution frequently choose to bore poor Millicent to extinction with uninteresting dialogue. “But people really talk like that,” they hedge. “It’s not my fault if most people are not scintillating conversationalists.”

Well, that’s not entirely true, realism-huggers. While no one can hold you accountable if the couple at the next table elects to immerse themselves in dull chit-chat (“How about this rain?” “We sure do need it.” “I’ll say.”), it’s not fair to expect readers to suffer through dialogue that has no legitimate claim to attention other than its fidelity to real-life talk.

Or, to put it a bit more bluntly: not everybody in the world is under an obligation to produce entertaining sentences. Writers are.

Messes with your head a little to think of dialogue in those terms, doesn’t it? If so, you’re not alone: most dialogue in submissions is clearly aimed at realism, rather than entertainment. Only a relatively small percentage of submissions demonstrate a commitment to developing character through speech by having characters say interesting and unexpected things in their own distinct voices.

Which is to say: you’d be amazed — at least, I hope you would — by how frequently otherwise creative narratives are bogged down by mundane, unrevealing, or cliché-ridden dialogue.

How common is it? Let me put it this way: if an alien from the planet Targ were to drop from the sky into Millicent’s cubicle tomorrow, determined to learn about how human beings communicate by leafing through a few hundred submissions, it would stroll out of her office sounding just like that couple at the next table. If you ran into it at a cocktail party, you’d be eavesdropping on nearby conversations within a couple of minutes.

What a pity — it might be fascinating to hear about living conditions on Targ these days. But even someone with something interesting to say can seem boring if he doesn’t express himself in interesting terms.

Or if, as we saw last time, if he chooses not to vouchsafe an opinion of his own. All too often, supporting characters — or even more common, passive protagonists whose idea of solving a mystery is to ask one or two questions, then sit back and wait while someone who has defined her very existence by the secret she has kept just blurts out the long-hidden truth — are only nominal participants in dialogue scenes. By not engaging the primary speaker with an alternate point of view, the character becomes simply a monologue-encourager.

Trevor glanced around the musty basement, wondering how anyone could possibly survive for an hour there, much less thirty-eight years. “So you have been in hiding all of this time?”

“You call it hiding.” Veronica’s teeth wobbled visibly with every word. “I call it saving my skin.”

“Really?”

“Oh, yes. When I first sought out the basement, it was merely as temporary shelter from the horrors of the street. I had no idea that I would be spending the better part of my life here.”

“Wow.”

She flipped her lank gray bangs out of her eyes, and just for a second, she resembled the seventeen-year-old she had been when she last stood in natural light. “Well might you say wow. Do you know how long it took me to figure out how to transform the disused washer/dryer unit into a convection oven? Eight long years. Before that, I had to eat the rats that sustain me raw.”

“Eww.”

“Oh, you get used to it. It’s the right seasoning that’s the trick. The same holds true for cockroach goulash, incidentally.”

“Weren’t you going to tell me about the horrible incident that drove you underground?”

She clutched her mouse fur bed jacket around her fiercely. “I swore I would never tell. Never!”

Trevor’s heart sunk within him. He had come so far in the last forty-eight hours; he couldn’t turn back without one last push. “Pretty please? With sugar on top?”

Veronica looked at him, and her last reservation melted. “It was a dark and stormy night in 1973. I was just a girl then, getting ready for the prom. My dress was hanging over my David Cassidy poster, waiting for me to pick out which of my six sets of platform shoes I would wear. Suddenly, I had the eerie feeling I was being watched.”

“Uh-huh,” he prompted breathlessly.

Trevor’s not adding very much to this interaction, is he? By choosing to be a mostly passive listener, rather than a participant in the conversation, he’s done more than abdicate his role as the reader’s guide through this part of the plot; he’s basically pulled up a chair and plopped himself down right next to the reader, drinking in Veronica’s story as though he were just another audience member.

But at least he is responding in a manner that reveals his feelings about what she is saying. All too often, passive protagonists in interview don’t even do that.

Trevor glanced around the musty basement. “So you have been hiding here all this time?”

“You call it hiding.” Veronica’s teeth wobbled visibly with every word. “I call it saving my skin.”

“Saving your skin?

“Oh, yes. When I first sought out the basement, it was merely as temporary shelter from the horrors of the street. I had no idea that I would be spending the better part of my life here.”

“The better part of your life? Why, how long has it been?”

“That depends. What year is it?” She laughed loudly before he could answer. “Just kidding. It’s been thirty-eight years.”

“Thirty-eight years!”

“The trick was keeping myself busy. Do you know how long it took me to figure out how to transform the disused washer/dryer unit into a convection oven? Eight long years. Before that, I had to eat the rats that sustain me raw.”

“Rats? Raw?”

“Oh, you get used to it. It’s the right seasoning that’s the trick.”

Pardon my asking, but couldn’t Trevor’s part in this scene be very adequately played by a parrot? Or a very high, cavernous ceiling that could echo Veronica’s words back to her?

Certainly, he’s providing neither conflict nor any additional information to the scene. Heck, he’s barely contributing any new words.

So what is he doing in the scene at all? Perhaps he is seeking clues to an ongoing mystery he is trying to solve, and is merely going about it poorly. Or maybe he is actually an immensely clever sleuth, trying to lull poor Veronica into a false sense of security by giving incisive questions about what he wants to know a wide berth. Or he could have just suffered a brain injury that deprived him of the ability to understand what someone is saying until he’s heard every part of it twice.

Or maybe he’s just rather stupid. At least, he appears so on the page.

That made some of you real dialogue-echoers sit bolt upright in your desk chairs, didn’t it? “But Anne,” you point out with some vim, “I know that you’ve just been saying that the fact that people actually talk that way shouldn’t be the only justification for a line of text, but people actually do talk this way. Repeating what’s just been said is a standard means of asking for clarification. Why, I can barely watch five minutes of any TV drama without hearing a character repeat a phrase that’s just been said to her.”

I believe it — and that alone might be a good reason not to embrace this conversational tactic in your dialogue. Since the rise of reality television (does anyone but me remember that producers originally embraced the format because the writers’ guild was on strike?), we’ve all become accustomed to highly repetitious speech pouring out of characters’ mouths, often with a blithe disregard for the rules of grammar. Heck, it’s become quite normal for even speakers who should know better to misuse words.

And I’m not talking about tiny gaffes, like saying further when the speaker really meant farther, either. (In response to that silent plea for clarification: the first refers to concepts, the second to distance.) I’m talking about the increasingly common practice of substituting the intended word or phrase with one that sounds similar to it — a doggy-dog world instead of a dog-eat-dog world, for instance, or mano y mano instead of mano a mano — as if getting it right simply didn’t matter. Or simply using a term so loosely that its original meaning dissipates, as when someone dubs an outcome ironic when it’s merely symbolically apt (in itself ironic, since irony is when the intended and literal meaning are at odds). Or says unironically, “We will be landing momentarily,” when he means “We will be landing in a few minutes,” not “We will be landing for a few moments, then taking off again.”

Yes, yes, I know: if I were correcting these commonly-misused phrases in the middle of an actual conversation, I would come across as a joy-killing curmudgeon. (Blame my upbringing: children in the Mini household were expected to be both seen and heard, but never to end a spoken sentence with a preposition.) And to tell you the truth, I wouldn’t have a problem with a writer’s reproducing these gaffes on the manuscript page — provided that their use was limited to dialogue and not every character made similar mistakes.

Which character would I select to talk this way? The one the reader is supposed to regard as a little slow on the uptake, of course.

Oh, you laugh, but back when writers composed and refined every word that fell out of characters’ mouths on TV and in movies, placing improper grammar and malapropisms into dim-witted characters’ mouths was a standard comic device. It was also a time-honored means of establishing a character’s level of education, social class, or susceptibility to prejudice: much of the recent furor over whether it was legitimate to clean up the language in HUCKLEBERRY FINN so that it could be assigned in more high school classrooms turned on Mark Twain’s devastatingly frequent use of a certain pejorative term to illustrate his protagonist’s change of perspective on issues of race throughout the book.

Even now, one of the quickest means of making a character come across as less intelligent on the page is to have him misuse words or repeat what’s just been said to him. The latter can be particularly effective, enabling the dialogue to convey that he doesn’t understand what’s going on without having to resort to the blunt expedient of having another character call him stupid.

Don’t believe that a few misused or repeated words can have that great an impact on character development? Well, they might not to a reader who habitually makes similar mistakes, but to a literate reader — and Millicent, her boss the agent, and the editor to whom the agent pitches pride themselves on their literacy — conversational faux pas will leap off the page. They’re a way to show, not tell, that a character has trouble expressing himself.

I sense that some of you are still not convinced. Okay, here’s an anecdote about how the repetition of a single misused word made a university professor seem substantially less intelligent.

When I was in graduate school, I took several small seminars with Professor Baker, an elegant, well-spoken woman who delighted in quoting Ancient Greek playwrights in even the most informal conversations. No mere cold intellectual, she was deeply interested in her students’ personal development. “Don’t cut off your options,” she would tell us frequently. “Go out and explore. I want to see you living a fulsome life!”

The first time she said this, I was convinced that I must have misheard. Fulsome, after all, means grossly overabundant or insincere; a fulsome complimenter would heap on praise after exaggerated praise until it was impossible to believe anything he said at all. It can also mean disgusting or offensive to the sensibilities. Somehow, I doubted that my professor was wishing me a life that resembled rotting meat.

Yet at the end of practically every seminar session, she would repeat her admonition: she seemed pretty darned insistent that my fellow students and I should be actively pursuing fulsome lives.

What she meant, of course, was that we should lead full lives; she must have just thought the -some bit added emphasis. But when I suggested that she truncate the word, she snapped at me like an irate turtle.

“Are you questioning my erudition?” she demanded. “I would hardly use a word if I were unaware of its definition.”

In that moment, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, she dropped so low in my regard/I heard her hit the ground. Not because she had consistently been using her favorite word incorrectly, but because she was too inflexible even to consider the possibility that she might have been wrong. And because had she been right, all she would have had to do was stretch that elegant, beringed hand across her well-appointed desk, open a dictionary, and show me the definition.

If she had wielded her pet piece of advice with more discretion, she would probably have gotten away with it, right? I might have chuckled over my notebook, but her momentary gaffe would soon have been obliterated in my memory by other, more lucid statements. But by repeating it so often, essentially turning it into her catchphrase, she made sure that single mistake would become entrenched in my mind as the key to her entire character.

Would this tactic work on the page? You bet, although I would advise giving a fictional character a wider array of conversational missteps. Repeating the same one over and over might well backfire: since professional readers are trained to spot textual repetition — how else would they be able to point out to you that you used the same metaphor twice in 157 pages? — the second iteration might strike Millicent as unintentional. (In answer to what half of you just shouted mentally: oh, you’d be surprised how often aspiring writers will plagiarize themselves within a manuscript. They don’t mean to be repetitious; they simply forget that they have used an image or even a sentence earlier in the book.)

Speaking of low-level carelessness, there’s another reason it might behoove Trevor’s creator to ramp up his contribution to the scene. You really don’t want Millicent to start wondering if the only reason he’s in the scene is to provide the narrative an excuse to show the reader what it’s like down there.

You’re chuckling again, aren’t you? Think about it: in a close third-person (or first-person) narrative, Trevor would have to be there to justify the reader’s venturing into that basement. Including a scene in which he did not appear would necessarily entail jumping into someone else’s perspective — or slipping out of the dominant voice of the book into an omniscient point of view.

“Whoa!” Millicent cries. “This manuscript is breaking its own rules!”

You can hardly blame her for being hyper-sensitive on this point: since tight third person and first person are the two most popular point of view choices, she sees an awful lot of protagonists wander into an awful lot of situations where they have no business being, simply because writers want to include specific scenes in their books. She’s also privy to a great many instances of a narrative’s abandoning the strictures the writer had been following for the rest of the story — sticking to a single perspective, allowing the narrative to be colored by the chosen character’s prejudices, and so forth — because the writer apparently could not figure out a way to show a desired activity from the dominant perspective.

In answer to that collective gasp: yes, she will notice, whether the point of view slips for an entire scene or a single paragraph. She’s going to be on the lookout for such voice inconsistency problems, in fact. It’s all a part of her fulsome rich and meaningful life.

Make sure your protagonists pursue existences almost as full as hers: don’t allow them to become bystanders in their own lives, even for a page. Show them engaging in the world around them; let their presences add substantially to any scene they grace. Those contributions do not need to be limited to the dialogue, either: in a close third-person or first-person narrative, even a protagonist forced to remain stock-still and silent can interrogate her boss in her thoughts, signal another prisoner with a poke of her toe, struggle to breathe calmly while that cursed monologue-happy teacher bellows in front of the chalkboard…

The possibilities are, as they say, limitless. In a universe both frequently fulsome and perpetually full, why restrict the scope of your creativity by not taking complete advantage of your protagonist’s ability to react?

Worth pondering, anyway. Keep up the good work!

13 Responses to “Pet peeves on parade, part XV: speak to me, protagonist. Or blink twice to let me know that you’re alive.”

  1. comment number 1 by: Nancy S. Thompson

    I got a kick out this post, Anne! I had a very young (college student) critique partner who insisted that my use of “deep seated” was incorrect, believing the term was actually “deep seeded.” I don’t think I was ever able to convince her otherwise. To be honest, I had to make sure I was indeed correct by looking it up. I also must admit, until recently, I had a problem misusing further in place of farther. And I won’t even go I to my confusion about past & passed!

    On a side note, I will have to find your old posts on the use of commas. I’m a bit old school & use them quite often. I find I am in the minority & am perplexed by it. Perhaps my Catholic school education was a bit too old school! So where might I find those posts?

  2. comment number 2 by: Jason Black

    GREAT post. And to this:

    “(In answer to what half of you just shouted mentally: oh, you’d be surprised how often aspiring writers will plagiarize themselves within a manuscript. They don’t mean to be repetitious; they simply forget that they have used an image or even a sentence earlier in the book.)”

    May I just say Oh, Gods Yes! Even Hugo Award-winning authors fall prey to this.

    Pop quiz, for anybody reading this comment: Consider the big, fat, juicy word “palimpsest.” In a 600 page novel, how many times can you realistically expect to get away with using “palimpsest” metaphorically? That is, when the book contains no actual, literal palimpsests, no actual overwritten or layered manuscripts, how many times can you use “palimpsest” metaphorically to refer to, let’s just say, the complex intermingling smells in a third-world open air marketplace?

    If you answered “one,” give yourself a pat on the back.

    If you answered “four,” then Millicent should considered herself honored that China Mieville reads her blog. He used it four times in “Perdido Street Station,” in basically that same way every time.

    The first time, it was a cool, clever metaphor. The second time it was annoying. The third time, it was “jeez, dude, get a new metaphor!” The fourth time, it was “Arrrgh! Not again!”

    Great post, Millicent. If I can add anything, it would be to point out that while repetitive word use by characters makes them look stupid, repetitive word use within 3rd person omniscient narrative makes the _writer_ look stupid.

    Don’t get me wrong. I love China Mieville. The dude can seriously write. _The City and the City_ was phenomenal and fully deserved its Hugo Award. I’m just saying, China, lay off the palimpsests for a while, eh?

  3. comment number 3 by: Anne

    That’s hilarious, Nancy. Now that you mention it, I’m not sure that I’ve ever done a post exclusively on the use of commas. I’m going to have to go a-searching.

  4. comment number 4 by: Anne

    Your comment made me howl with laughter, Jason — from an editorial point of view, it’s literally impossible that a reader would not have remembered such an unusual word (and one that a significant proportion of reader would have to look up) after a single use. We all have our pet phrases.

  5. comment number 5 by: Elizabeth West

    Clive Barker always, ALWAYS uses the word “abbatoir” one time in each of his books. I’ve gotten to where I look for it every time. I wonder if it’s just a word he likes, or if it has something more behind it.

    I am doing that with the word “ruminated,” as in thinking something over. As kids, my sister and I read the original copies of Nancy Drew, and in The Hidden Staircase, Nancy ruminated over something. We thought that was hilarious because cows ruminate (chew their cud). Nancy chewed her cud!

    Every book I write has/will have that word in there somewhere, as an Easter egg for my sister. :)

  6. comment number 6 by: Anne A.

    Hey, can I put in another vote for something on commas? It appears where I currently live, teachers have attacked the issue of comma overuse by terrifying students away from them — to the extent that I see an awful lot of Uni students leaving out quite essential commas. I know this from talking to a young lady when we went over her essay: she started by saying “I think I put in too many commas.” To which I had to reply, “Actually, I would have added some more.” She then explained that she was taught to use “less commas”, but without any guidance about what commas are *meant* to be there and what aren’t.

    I’m afraid I’ve read so much students’ writing by this point that I am very vague on my own use of commas, and I start wondering — hmm, does one really put a comma before the conjunction of a compound sentence? Is it required or optional? What about non-restrictive clauses? What about introductory clauses?

    Even reading my colleagues’ writing, one might think such things are optional in modern English. I really have lost a lot confidence here, and would appreciate some useful guidelines!

    And on the topic of repetition — I’m amazed by how much I do this when composing. It seems if I’ve thought of a word, that word then becomes the first to which I reach whenever something similar comes along. I suspect this is some kind of psychological thing, like forming a path in the mind like grass is beaten down in paths across fields — one just follows where one’s been before.

  7. comment number 7 by: Eli

    I just found your blog and I’ve been reading through it. It’s really a treasure-trove of reminders and not-so-common-sense.

    I have to admit I had a little trouble making it through this post, though. I followed until you told the story about your professor, but the hang-up on fulsome threw me off a bit since one of it’s OTHER definitions is simply ‘encompassing all aspects, comprehensive’. Yes, I looked that up because I often use the word fulsome in the same manner and I wondered if I’d been making an idiot of myself.

    Anyway, that made the latter half of the post a bit confusing for me. As for the rest of the post–magnificent. You’re really great at laying it all down where even the most stubborn and defensive authors have to go:

    “Crap.” Eli flipped back to her work-in-progress and furiously tapped the delete key.

  8. comment number 8 by: Anne

    Your comment made me giggle, Eli — I had thought that someone would point out that the next post was not particularly coherent. Actually,I was hoping someone would bring up your very point — at the risk of dating myself, when I was in graduate school, that was not a definition you would have found in the dictionary. Now, you might well see it also defined as abundant, not because the technical meaning changed, but because do many people misunderstood the use of it with respect to compliments that the dictionary-keepers threw up their hands, admitted defeat, and started recognizing a meaning that was, let’s face it, diametrically opposed to the original definition.

    Traditionally, fulsome has carried a negative aspect, but people like my professor misused it frequently enough that their definition eventually made it into some (not all) dictionaries. That’s why in some dictionaries, you will find momentarily defined as both for a moment (its traditional meaning) and in a moment (the way one usually hears it) and hopefully as both fully of hope (its traditional meaning) and I hope that what I say next will come true in the future (the way one usually hears it). That’s the way language is: it grows and changes.

    That doesn’t mean, however, that some curmudgeon like me isn’t going to take exception if you use any of these democratically-derived alternate meanings in front of us; the entire department used to make fun of my professor behind her august back. Nor does it mean that Millicent wouldn’t roll her eyes over it in a submission and draw a conclusion about authorial literacy. Why? Well, she, like much of the publishing industry, was an English major at a good university, and thus treated to professorial rants about the decline of the language, how enough people misusing a word doesn’t make it right, how online dictionaries and spell-checker vocabularies’ definitions are not always correct, etc. She’s been trained to be suspicious of the new generally-accepted definitions of words, because in literate circles, people do laugh at new meanings.

    What does this mean, in practical terms? First, that the fourth or fifth definition a dictionary lists for a word might not be one you want to use within the first chapter or two of a submission, unless it’s in very wide common use. You are not, after all, going to be standing next to Millicent when she reads your manuscript, all ready to say, “Oh, but that definition is in the dictionary, too.” Even if you were, your entirely correct statement would probably only spark a lecture on the decline of the language.

    Second, she simply does not have the time to stop screening a manuscript every time she sees a word used in a non-standard manner. There is no chance, then, that she will say, “Hmm, I wonder if the language has changed in this respect,” and reach for the Funk & Wagnalls. Even if she did, it probably would not be the most recent edition, and unless it had come out fairly recently, the listing for fulsome would probably not include the newer definition. If you happened to be standing nearby, she would probably bore you with fifteen anecdotes about all the authors who have tried to argue that it is the reader’s obligation to figure out which of the many possible definitions they meant, that any definition (even the ones the O.E.D. lists as obsolete or colloquial) included in any dictionary ever published in the English language may justifiably be used in writing without explanation, and that there is nothing wrong with knocking a reader out of a story (as you were knocked out of mine) by using an alternately-defined term. The point of all fifteen anecdotes would be that the author lost the battle, and the agent or editor changed the word.

    So are you correct about the existence of an alternate meaning? Yes. Would I advise using fulsome as a positive term? Not among people who deal with words for a living. At least not in a context where there cannot be any further discussion if they believe your use to be wrong.

  9. comment number 9 by: Anne

    Ah, I see that fatal combination all the time, Anne — writers who were taught the when in doubt, leave it out rule without being told which instances are mandatory. It’s often the educational backlash to the 1970s teaching technique that instructed students to say their sentences out loud, placing a comma every time they paused. The result was that breath-impaired students simply littered their pages with commas.

    While I would like to think that the current trend in the other direction was an indication that today’s youth smokes less, my sense is that in many school systems, students are taught very few rules of grammar — they are told when they are wrong, but not given the tools to make their sentences right. When I have asked junior high school teachers about this, they say, “Oh, the students will get those rules in high school.” The high school teachers say, “Oh, they will get those rules in college,” and the college professors say, “Oh, they should have learned those rules in high school.” So unless a student writer reads a great deal or is blessed with parents given to diagramming sentences at the dinner table (because grammar is not the sort of thing they want their kids to pick up in the street), she’s likely to be guessing.

    All the same, I’m a bit hesitant to launch into a full-fledged lay-down-the-law session here, due precisely to your student’s reaction: the howls of “But my high school English teacher said…” would rend the skies for weeks. That might provide some fruitful discussion, but it would also mean setting aside many, many hours to respond to each individual howl.

    I shall think very seriously, though, about how much I could reasonably cover (with abundant-but-not-fulsome examples, of course) in a couple of posts. It’s a huge subject, and the Author! Author! community includes so many writing teachers that I would want those posts to be usable as hand-outs to students. Rather daunting. I have to confess that what I currently do when I encounter a rules-impaired writer is to shove a copy of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style into her hands.

  10. comment number 10 by: Eli

    Anne said: “What does this mean, in practical terms? First, that the fourth or fifth definition a dictionary lists for a word might not be one you want to use within the first chapter or two of a submission, unless it’s in very wide common use. ”

    Eli: Agreed. I only pointed it out because I always thought the fourth definition WAS the primary definition. I never considered that it (what I thought was a common term) could cause such an impact. It makes me wonder whether my voice might be clashing with my character models in places where I don’t notice it. I’ll definitely have to look for a beta-reader who is sensitive to word-choice.

  11. comment number 11 by: Anne

    Oh, that’s really interesting, Eli — and a scenario that a professional reader probably would not consider as a possibility upon encountering the word in a submission, actually. We’d be imagining the author at our elbows, defending the word choice. Not that we’re defensive or anything.

  12. comment number 12 by: Jeff

    It might be time for a note of apology to a former professor. According to the dictionary on my computer, the second definition of fulsome is:

    2 of large size or quantity; generous or abundant : a fulsome harvest.

    USAGE The earliest recorded use of fulsome, in the 13th century, had the meaning ‘abundant,’ but in modern use this is held by many to be incorrect. The correct current meaning is ‘disgusting because overdone, excessive.’ The word is still often used to mean ‘abundant, copious,’ but this use can give rise to ambiguity: for one speaker, fulsome praise may be a genuine compliment; for others, it will be interpreted as an insult. For this reason alone, it is best to avoid the word altogether if the context is likely to be sensitive.

  13. comment number 13 by: Anne

    I appreciate your concern for my former professor, Jeff, but what you cite here actually supports my point — which was that she was using the term in a manner that did not convey the meaning to hearers that she intended. I suppose, though, it could be argued (I believe ahistorically, but I want to give your argument a fighting chance) that she deliberately employed the archaic form, rather than simply not being aware of the standard meaning of the word. You may be right that she was trying to sound medieval, but I suspect that what actually happened here is something that aspiring writers hoping to sound erudite do all the time: she used a fancy word without double-checking that a hearer/reader would understand what she meant by it.

    Professional readers, especially contest judges, see this dubious strategy pop up on the page all the time. It’s fairly common for an aspiring writer hoping to impress to employ an archaic or just plain uncommon definition of a word in common use — and then to profess great astonishment that any reader, much less someone who does it for a living, could possibly have thought that s/he could have meant the usual definition.

    Typically, the argument runs that if any dictionary anywhere supported a non-standard usage, it didn’t matter how the term was commonly used — it’s fair game to use the oddball definition. The reader is supposed to be impressed by it, in fact: we are supposed, presumably, to regard it as evidence that the writer wielding the word is tremendously well-read.

    The thing is, though, this is not a strategy that well-read people employ much. They are more prone than your average bear to use non-standard words, but they tend to be careful to place them in contexts where the intended meaning will be clear to the hearer or reader. (It shows off their understanding so much better, you see.)

    As my professor used this term, however, it was impossible to tell from context whether she was aware that anybody ever used it to mean anything but its medieval definition. It just sounded right to her — so much so that she would actually correct anyone who dared utter the word in a context that implied its current definition. She left her hearers, in short, in precisely the same situation as a screener or contest judge: having to decide whether we were interested enough to try to figure out why she wouldn’t use any of the many, many words in common usage that would have conveyed her intended meaning with no possibility of misinterpretation.

    Which is precisely how alternate definition-lovers tend to use 5th, 18th, or 27th definitions for words in print, as it happens — thus my using her speech habits as a jumping-off point for this post. It’s usually impossible for the pro to tell from context whether (a) the text is using the odd form in an attempt to impress readers, (b) the text is simply echoing a common misuse, as is the case with our example, because the writer does not habitually double-check meanings, or (c) the text is reflecting the writer’s love of dictionary-crawling. So instead of being able to read on unfettered, as a pro would expect to be able to do with clearly-written text, it’s necessary to stop dead and look the word up, to see if there is any possible justification for the non-standard use.

    Or, if the word happens to fall in a submission, not to bother, because the minimum standard for professional writing is clarity. Ultimately, it’s the writer’s job to be aware of both the standard uses of any term s/he chooses to use — and to assume the risks if s/he elects to employ a meaning that readers in his or her chosen book category will not immediately grasp.

    All too often, aspiring writers forget this, but it’s not the reader’s job to figure out what they are talking about; it’s the text’s job to make it clear. Which apparently this post did not achieve, as more than one reader’s response to it was to rush straight to a dictionary in an attempt to argue that because a word has at some dim point in human history been used to mean something other than it does now, a writer may presume that every reader’s first response to an archaic use — which, in this case, means something quite different than the usual meaning — will be to run, not walk, to a dictionary in order to see just how obscure the reference actually was. Yes, some readers enjoy this, but you’d be amazed at how many would just consider it a bore, if not an authorial imposition.

    Or, at minimum, a distraction from the story being told on the page. In most book categories, that’s a red flag in a submission.

    And that’s my blogging time for the day, I’m afraid. You’d be amazed at how often that happens: a reader will bring up a point about a years-old post, and the blogger will have to make the choice between engaging in an interesting discussion with only one reader, in a location that perhaps only a handful of future readers will ever find, or to create a fresh post. You tempter, you!

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