I was recently challenged to say what word or phrase I’d cut from the English language. Believe it or not, that’s a tough one. There are phrases and some words I’d like not to see when I’m reading or editing, but I also believe in your writing, you use whatever word or phrase you need to convey your point. There are many phrases/words I don’t use in my regular speaking vocabulary, but if they fit a situation or character in my work, I’ll use it.
For example, I never addressed either of my significant others as “Babe” or “Baby.” I don’t get calling a grown person that and find it rather demeaning. The same thing with men or women calling a woman a “chick.” However, one of my characters, Edwin Terrell, Jr., calls my protagonist Mai Fisher Baby all the time. Mai hates it, but Terrell does it–because she hates it. If I had a character who’d naturally call a woman a chick (ugh), I’d certainly have him or her use that word. If you have a similar character dynamic, using a word you dislike may work for a fictional relationship.
Some of you who’ve read my work will probably find the irony in the paragraph above. My characters use the f-bomb when necessary, but I quibble at using “babe” or “chick.” That’s the writing life, Baby.
I do have my pet peeves when it comes to language. Use its or it’s wrong, and you’ll lose me. Use a comma splice, and I’ll stop reading. Jam two sentences together without a conjunction or the appropriate punctuation, and I’ll be tempted to book-burn.
Now, this isn’t to say I haven’t been guilty of any of my own pet peeves. The difference is I caught them in editing/revising. I get frustrated with people who call themselves writers/authors, but they don’t do a simple read-through of a manuscript to catch the basic grammatical slip-ups.
Let’s face it. You learned the difference between its and it’s a long time ago. You learned where to place commas and where not to place them. You learned parts of speech and how to use them correctly. Rely on that knowledge–or buy a grammar book.
Now that I’ve said I wouldn’t eliminate any word or phrase from the English language, one came to me.
And then, as in, “He picked up the book, and then he began to read.”
Grammatically, there’s nothing wrong with that sentence, except that the “and then” isn’t necessary. Then is an adverb to denote time, and it’s not exactly correct to use it to indicate a sequence of events, though that has become what’s called “common usage.” A series of words or phrases is better for demonstrating a sequence, e.g., “He sat down, picked up the book, and read.” Sharper, cleaner. The “then” is implied, but that’s okay because the sentence is clear enough the reader will get it.
In my writing, I eliminate “then” as much as possible. It’s one of those fluff words to me, like “very” or “really” or “just.” None of them add to a sentence and can detract from a sentence’s clarity. However, if having a character say “really” in dialogue makes that dialogue seem more realistic, I’ll use it. The same holds true for any fluff word because, well, in casual conversation, we talk that way. If we want our characters to sound believable, their dialogue won’t necessarily be stylistically perfect.
Many writers write how they think. Well, we all do, but some of us consider that a rough draft not a completed manuscript. That form of stream of consciousness writing also makes it difficult for an editor (which I also am) to make sense of a manuscript. Not that it’s your job to make ours easier, but many of us do charge by the hour.
Words can be capricious things. For centuries they can mean one thing, but time changes their usage. Look at all the words rarely used anymore, except in Facebook memes about “words that should be brought back into the language.” Those are fun to read, but remember, those words were once in common usage. There’ll come a day when godawful words like “incentivize” or “contract out” or “smiley” will make those “words no longer used” lists. We can only hope.
Here’s the wonderful thing about words, any words. Words can mean different things to different people. “Knock her up” means two vastly different things in American English and British English. Once, when I was in London, I went to a chemists (drug store) to buy some aspirin. A girl no more than ten was in front of me in line and asked the clerk (cashier) where she could find the rubbers. My American jaw dropped until I realized she meant erasers.
Writers can use different perceptions of the same word to their advantage. Writers can twist words, put them in unusual places in the sentence, and intrigue you. I love reading a gorgeous sentence with an unusual construction and being wowed by it. I strive to do that someday.
I love the capriciousness of words. I like how you can juggle them, switch them around, and stack them until they show the reader what’s in your head.
Eliminate any? Nah. Find a way to use them in a creative way. Yes.
Except maybe “and then.”