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What I Learned about Writing this Week…from Words

Words matter.

I don’t know if you’ve realized that, my dear inklings, but it has come to my attention a few times. Recently, I noticed this strange phenomenon when I was trying to send a message on Twitter. (For those in the know, this process is called “tweeting” — in my eyes, a particularly interesting word choice.) I was trying to tell Julie that Aaron puts a lot more faith in my artistic skills than I do. Twitter’s spellchecker, in its oh-so-helpful way, tried to correct my hastily-typed and therefore misspelled “faith” to “Gauguin.”

While I wouldn’t mind having some Gauguin native to my artistic talent, that isn’t exactly what I wanted to communicate. (Not to mention my skepticism that Aaron has the power of Gauguinic infusion.)

On Facebook, by means of the well-known “Flair” application, I discovered a series of amusing buttons which display photos of official signs. One such sign reads:

Please present your octopus.

This leads to all sorts of confusing questions. Is presenting an octopus like presenting arms? Is there a ceremonial aspect to consider? What if I don’t have an octopus to present? Or did the author of the sign mean that I should gift my octopus with something? Even if I had an octopus, what sort of gifts do octopuses like? Or is it octopi?

The implications are staggering.

Groucho Marx once said,

Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it is too dark to read.

I would venture the claim that Mr. Marx played with the prepositions on purpose to put together this pithy pun. Sometimes, creating confusion is the whole point of a particular communication (and yes, I do realize I’m having an alliterative moment; and no, I don’t know why), as well as eliciting chuckles and eyerolls from one’s audience. Nothing wrong with that…as long as the doing of it is intentional.

Did You Really Mean To Say That?

Which brings us, naturally, to the real point of today’s article. What? No, I’m not just reciting anecdotes for your collective amusement! This is serious business, people! We’re talking about learning here!


We all know the shenanigans that can happen when newspapers over-edit their headlines in the interest of brevity. Students start cooking grandparents, mushrooms suddenly have gender, and cows wield axes against farmers. It’s chaos, I tell you, all because someone wanted to save space and left out a “the” here or an “an” there. When elimination, addition, or switcheroo of words isn’t intentional, it leads to a breakdown of communication — and communication, gentle readers, is what we writers are all about.

But more about that in a minute. Ready for another antidote anecdote? A couple of years ago, I was in the process of editing the first draft of my novel Triad, and I recorded the following observations:

So, I’m editing Chapter 16 of my book, and a spelling error caught my eye. This wouldn’t be such a big deal — it could just be a typo, y’know — except that I’ve observed the same error in multiple places in the manuscript. Apparently, I don’t know the difference between “rein” and “reign.”

Of the two, the one I need most in the story is “rein”–as in, the reins of horses, taking the reins, reining a horse (or a person) in, etc. What I actually used in my first draft is “reign”–as in, a monarch’s reign, the reigning ruler, etc.

Note to self: There is quite a difference between

  • “I reined in the horse”
  • and “I reigned in the horse.”

The latter would be, I imagine, fairly uncomfortable, not to mention a thing of impossibility in our dimension, Greeks and Trojans notwithstanding.

Shades of Mr. Marx again. My initial word choice — “reign” — changed the meaning of every sentence in which I used the word. I was expressing something I didn’t mean to express, while losing the essence of what I really wanted to say. I wasn’t communicating.

Oh, and speaking of loss, I was losing the meaning, not loosing it. In penning this article, I perused global Facebook status updates. I found people loosing friends, love, common sense, information, abilities, games, control, nothing, slippers (Et tu, Cinderella?), hair, phones, “close ones,” money, weight, sparks, minds, focus, and the ever-ephemeral “it.”

As a result of all this loosing (or loosening?), I’m picturing various denizens of the Net with somewhat manic looks on their faces, releasing handfuls of hair to the breeze or tossing their cell phones out of windows, all while shouting, “You’re free! You’re free!” Some of them, surely, are going to end up giving away or receiving things they never expected to give or get, like one Facebook user who claimed she “deserves to loose” — which brings French cities to mind.

The loosen-lose-loose(-loos?) conundrum also makes me think of their-there-they’re, your-you’re, and it’s-its. But I’m not here to give you a grammar lesson; your very own Little, Brown Handbook can do that far better than I.

Deliberate Connection

Aaron and I both have talked about this. When you write, you are negotiating a connection with your readers. You’re taking your idea, converting it into written language, and presenting it in words you want your readers to understand. If you don’t choose your words wisely, that understanding won’t take place. You won’t forge the connection between your ideas and your readers…or between your soul and your readers’. (And yes, readers and readers’ was intentional.) If you don’t connect with your readers, you might as well be talking to yourself…and sometimes, even your Self won’t have a clue what you’re trying to say.*

So pay attention to your words. I know, it seems a terribly obvious thing to say — but we writers need such reminders from time to time. Write with flair and abandon, but don’t let your words meander all willy-nilly! Deliberate over your verbs. Make each adjective deliberate. (See what I did there?) Make every word count. And please don’t forget to present your octopus.

And that’s WILAWriTWe!

(Click the Amazon link, purchase something, and contribute to the Courtney Cantrell Writerly Writership fund.)

Photo credit Julie V. Photography.

*A few weeks ago, I wrote myself a note: “The eyes are open, but the armpits are sated.”

8 Responses to “What I Learned about Writing this Week…from Words”

  1. Julie says:

    You really make me laugh, you know that?

  2. Ick. Loose/lose and lay/lie get me all the time. I’m sure there are others but…sigh. Must get them into my head!

    • Courtney Cantrell says:

      I really only included the link to Little, Brown Handbook so that no one would expect me to launch into grammatical explanations right there in my article…but seriously, I do recommend acquiring a copy. It’s an excellent resource for getting those pesky verbs into one’s head! 😉

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      There’s another one I’ve mentioned a couple times, Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies, and it has highly entertaining (and quite effectively informative) chapters on both of those.

      If you’d have any interest in reading a humorous grammar textbook, cover-to-cover, you’ve got to pick that one up.

      If you just want a reference though, Courtney’s right. You can’t beat Little, Brown.

      • Courtney Cantrell says:

        I think I might oughta read Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies just for fun.


  3. Courtney you are just too entertaining. There are several words that I get auto corrected in word that totally screws up the meaning too! I have learned to carefully re-read.

    My wife still cant figure out why cliff doesn’t have a “t” at the end,she says “clift” and writes it, but it isn’t even a word.

    Thanks for another fun article and good luck reigning in that horse, don’t forget a flashlight.

    • Courtney Cantrell says:

      Justin, I can’t agree with you more about those auto-corrections. They have ruined many a fine sentence in their day. I’m sure technology will make such programs more intuitive someday…but in the meantime, heaven forbid, we actually have to keep thinking for ourselves. 😉

      Just this evening, a friend of mine Facebooked something about a dialect that contains the word “acrosst.” Oh, the beauty of regional dialects! 😉 Here in Oklahoma, I have to guard myself against saying “I used-to could” instead of “I used to be able.” Hee hee.

      Thanks for reading! It’s nice to know I can brighten someone’s day with a smile while attempting to be all edumacational. 😀