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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Tossing Out the Dictionary

I love the English language.

I love French too.

I wanted to get that out in the open because today’s blog is apt to irk a few French and English majors, particularly those who love rules and the finer points of grammar. But my fellow Lady Scribes have dubbed me the Countess of Controversy and every once in a while I feel I must live up to my title.

As a child, I knew all the rules of grammar and waved the dictionary at the first sign of unorthodox usage. But as I dabbled in linguistics and history, I learned how words evolve, and I realized languages are as alive as the people who use them.

And the dictionary stifles creativity.

No book or set of rules could ever control a living language. A dictionary is merely a vain attempt to document what speakers have already established. Whether a word or usage is found in the dictionary tells us more about the quality of the dictionary than it does about the speaker.

In fact, strictly enforcing rules of grammar and relying too heavily on dictionaries can kill a language.

Now before you rush off to the comments area to tell me how crazy this is, allow me to offer a real world example:

Consider the French and English colonial empires. At the turn of the 20th century, both countries had millions of subjects who spoke their language.

A hundred years later, English continues to thrive while French has declined to the point where it’s no longer offered at my local high school. On a recent trip to former French colonies, I was surprised to discover that young people spoke more English than French. In fact, the only place where French is de rigueur seems to be the United Nations and international sports competitions like the Olympics and World Cup Soccer.

Throughout the century, the English language has adapted to technological, political, and economic changes while French seems to be on the decline. And that’s partly because of the influence of dictionaries and rules of grammar.

Americans love freedom and scorn anything that smacks of authoritarianism. So we rush about willy-nilly, making up new words, stealing from other languages, turning nouns and adjectives into verbs, and generally flaunting the rules our English professors taught us.

The French, on the other hand, have the Academie Francaise, an official organization whose sole purpose is to keep French pure and make sure that everyone follows precise rules of grammar. When I lived in France, advertisers could be fined for using foreign words and public television content was strictly controlled. New inventions are assigned names based on pre-existing French words. That’s probably why, when my French-speaking nephew said to hand him the “portable”, I had no idea whether he whether he meant the cell phone or the laptop. In an age when technology and communications move at lightspeed, the French are stuck with a rigid, archaic system that can’t keep pace.

No wonder the rest of the world has decided to join in the fun and embrace American English.

So in the interest of the long term survival of the American language, I’ve decided to toss out my dictionary and embrace creative wordplay. If it was good enough for William Shakespeare, it ought to be good enough for me.

No longer will I waste time arguing over the proper use of that or which. I will judge contest entries on storytelling, not adherence to some arbitrary set of writers’ rules. And when risk-taking authors final in these contests, my cheers will crescendo louder than all the others. My beloved critique partners will write me little notes, “Umm..you know that’s not a verb, right?” But I’m sure they’ll understand when I tell them not to purple up their prose.

Yes, I know this flagrant disregard for the rules will cause some consternation among grammar purists and dictionary aficionados. But I’ve noticed no one ever complains about bad grammar when they go to Vegas and the hotel comps them a suite. If the story is good enough, they won’t notice my avant-garde usage. Maybe they’ll even adopt it, and someday, it might find its way into a dictionary.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. What kind of writer are you? A by-the-book purist who strives to follow every rule? Or a live-and-let-live linguist who’ll accept any construction as long as it makes sense?


  1. We spoke French when we were children. I remember having a hard time trying to learn words that didn't translate.

    I think I'm a purist by nature. (I write Regencies.) I love the English language and looking up word origins (geek that way) brings me closer to the time period.

  2. Clarissa,
    Great post, as always. I'm a live and let live linguist who will accept something as long as it makes sense. When I read a story I'm drawn in by the characters and plot. I would never put a great story aside because someone used that or which incorrectly, but I also suspect a good copyeditor will correct minor mistakes before the book ever reaches my eager fingers. When I judge in contest or read for my critique partners, I do try to correct grammatical mistakes, but more importantly, I try to evaluate whether the story draws me into, do I identify with the characters, and does the plot make me want to turn the pages.

  3. Thank you for your comments:

    Anne- I am a purist by nature too. I like the way rules make everything seem nice and orderly. I like to think that a dictionary can answer all my questions. So it took a major revolution for me to look at my writing and say, "Wow. This is holding me back. I need to let go of the rules and be more natural." Of course, this only works for me and I would never suggest another author should do the same.

    Julie-Your flexibility and attention to story is what makes you a great critique partner. I'm so very lucky to have you reading my work. Mu-ah!

  4. Clarissa, I LOVE this blog post. LOL. Probably because I'm a mixed bag, when it comes to this subject. I am an English major, and I nearly went for a French minor. I love the study of Linguistics, and learning how language evolves. And in my real life, I tend to make up words all the time, both in speech and in informal writing. But in formal writing, the grammatician (see! I can make up words) within me takes over. I have to use the proper words in the proper way, or I'll go insane.

    One of the sad facts out there is that modern publishing insists on most creative writing being more of a "formal" type of writing. If you write about a fictional world like Jo Rowling did in her Harry Potter books, then you can create your own words to suit this world. But if you write about a world that actually exists (or existed at one point), then copy editors are going to insist on proper words being used in proper ways far more often than not.

    So even if a word has come into common usage in speech and in informal writing, that doesn't mean it has yet crossed the invisible barrier into being acceptable usage for formal writing. *sigh* It always takes longer to get things into writing these days. Too bad we can't all be like Shakespeare and make a word work for us in the way we want to use it, or like Lewis Carroll and simply make words up to mean what we want to say. But I have had an idea for a long time for a heroine who will be a word-creator in the Regency era. She'll make up words to suit her mood or situation all the time. We'll see how that works out. But I really, really want to write her.

  5. I'm not against made-up words if they are to fulfill a purpose. Or for something new. Or as an evolving word.

    The danger is some words are used/made up out of pure laziness or ignorance.

    Case in point: I was listening to a tape that talked about being "pestimistic." Are we to accept that as a word just because it was said?

    There are daily examples of this and I'm "agin it" if it's because the individual doesn't know the correct word.

  6. Bravo Gail! You tell 'em, Countess!


  7. I think we have a mix of needing to be creative and needing to communicate. I worked with a man once who used such long unusual words in meetings and everyday speech that I needed to go look them up after each meeting, so I could comprehend just what it was we were talking about. So while his knowledge of the language was amazing to me, it was useless, because for a fairly educated, but ordinary person it was incomprehensible. I did not respect that man one little bit. The same goes for some of the slang used today. You only understand it if you belong to a niche group. E.g. you are a surf-boarder. We need the ability and flexibility to communicate the subtleties of the human mind by bringing those subtleties to life in new and fresh ways. A dictionary can, in fact, be helpful for that. On the other hand, English, American, or English English for that matter, is an evolving language, and evolving is good. Devolving to things like wotchuwant4dinr as a communication tool is probably not a good thing. LOL

  8. I love this post. (And so did my inner anarchist! LOL) I understand the need for rules, and for categorization. It satisfies that craving for order. Yet if it goes too far the other direction, as you said, it stifles creativity.

    I'm a word nerd, and I love how language evolves. I think a lot of the evolution is because we spend more time listening to people talking on TV or radio, rather than reading, so our brains process the words differently.

    Even the same word can have different nuances, based on the timeframe. In the 18th century being "enthusiastic" was not a compliment--you were viewed a little more suspiciously, whereas now it's high praise. LOL

    It all boils down to our need and desire to communicate, and to tell a story. The more colorful, the better. :)

  9. Thanks for joining in the coversation, Ann and Alia. You both make some very good points.

    I love malapropisms, but I don't think they will ever become standard usage. My son once had a teacher who used "Pacific" instead of specific. She would say, "We need to the about the Pacific details of this project." And I could never figure out if she didn't know the difference or couldn't pronounce the sp. She seemed to pronounce it just fine in other words. It made for some very odd conversations. :)

  10. Hi Donna, You are such a loyal follower and your comments are always spot on. Thanks for commenting. :)

  11. I'm no purist, but I do believe you *must* know the rules before you can break them. For most contemporary stories, formal English is too wordy, awkward, and stilted for good flow, but poor word choice and lazy grammar are not acceptable substitutes.

  12. Very well written Clarissa and I love your description of "no book could ever contain a living language." Phrases like that are why I love language and writing so much. The unique descrptions from various points of view.
    For me, if a book is historical then it should have a formal cadence and word usage, but if it is a contemporary YA today then I am going to marvel at the creativity and clever wording of that author - especially if they have created a new word or vocabulary to fit their story.
    JD Robb's futuristic police novels would not work if Dectective Dallas left the precinct explaining she would return "anon".
    I have great respect for historical authors due to the amount of research they have to put into their work in order to create the right atmosphere in their novels using language that was apprpriate then but so far outdated now as to have been lost to the general populous.
    I agree with many of the other women here - if the wording or creative invention of a new word adds to the story then I am all for it. It is, and should be, the story and characters that pull a reader in.
    Having said that I also cannot abide by simple ignorance. I love language and to abuse it out of a lack of understanding is painful. "Pestimistic"? Ouch. That hurts.

  13. There are so many reasons why I think you are brilliant. And this blog just confirms it. Perhaps that is because you are a sister artist, writer, explorer. A true kindred spirit.

    Amongst the things I have been criticized for: Excessive use of commas sprinkled...everywhere.
    And it took me over a year to give up the double em dash. I believe this comes from years of writing advertising copy for radio or TV.

    And I love to make up words or combine existing words into new ones. Lately I enjoy making up sounds that denote an emotion or feeling that is inexpressible in normal vocabulary alone. For PHAETON BLACK I needed a low gurgling rumble, or vibrating sound for the gargoyle. Edvar is sometimes heard before he is seen, so I combined the words purr and gurgle: Purrgurgle. I love the tenses of the word as well, purrgurgled, purrgurgling. (Not likely purrgurgle will pop up in the OED anytime soon. Ha!)

    Nice blog, Gail!

  14. Clarissa, what a wonderful post, and I have a CP who compares the sloppiness of English to the preciseness of French. But I also agree with Viva, know the rules before you break them. That way your writing flows brilliantly and seamlessly. Thanks for your insights!

  15. Oh! I forgot to mention Jane Austen for all you historical romance grammar sticklers out there.

    I recommend the following article on NPR's website. The title is telling: Manuscripts Suggest Jane Austen Had A Great Editor.

    Here's a quote: Kathryn Sutherland, a professor at Oxford University, has been studying more than 1,000 original handwritten pages of Austen's prose. She's found some telling differences between the handwritten pages and Austen's finished works — including terrible spelling, grammatical errors and poor (often nonexistent) punctuation.


  16. Clarissa, I love this post! I adore playing with language, making it work for me in all it's richness and flavor. Yay to you, champion of literary misrule! :)

  17. Here, here, Clarissa. Well said! I'm a live and let live as my crit partners already know. I despise rules and grammar in the extreme! LOL.

    Don't judge every contest entry based on nitpicky items that aren't even relevant to storytelling. Tell the author how to fix it but judge the story based on its merits. We're in the business of storytelling, not grammar. I agree we need some rules and regulations but there are those who take it to the extreme. If you take points off a great story because it was better to use which instead of that - something’s wrong. Stop reading as a editor and read the story as it was meant to be read, as entertainment. My hat's off to Clarissa today for being brave enough to say what we're all thinking.

  18. Thanks again to all who have commented.
    VR & Donnell I absolutely agree about knowing the rules before your break them.
    Meredith--You're spot on with the matching the language to the setting. When I'm writing historicals, I always try to read a lot of documents from the time period to get a feel for the language.
    Jill, I loved the story on Jane Austen. Thanks for pointing it out.

  19. I love this! Take language and twist it into whatever you need it to be in order to express yourself. No one does this better than teens; I love each generation's twists and turns as they take the English language and make it their own.

    Ever evolving. That's what makes language so beautiful. And I love Jillian's new word. :)

  20. We seem to make up words all of the time and laugh at hoping to see them in a dictionary some day. I loved the word boughten. It wasn't in the dictionary, but to my ear it sounded weird to say it was bought when it was boughten sounded better. A few years later I actually found my beloved word. Go figure!!!

    We have so many foreign speaking people in our lives that I guess that if I can figure out what they are saying, it doesn't matter how they say it. Sign language has been used to help the situation along as well. :)

  21. I'm a live and let live person in just about every aspect of my life. I certainly support using proper grammar, so I don't think rules should be tossed out the window. On the other hand, I think some people should lighten up and be nicer.

    On a different note, I've always found it rude to correct another person in conversation. For one thing, the one correcting usually is interrupting the other person, and it can be embarrassing to the speaker. There is book intelligence and then there is social intelligence. A balance is a good thing. :)

  22. Good food for thought, Clarissa. I remember getting so annoyed in the last decade or so when people made verbs out of nouns: "parenting," "dialoguing," etc., and of course "friending." I refused to join in until I realized that language is a living and evolving form and to not go along with it just makes me a rigid writer. Still, I will not use the term, "so I'm like..." Mary Moreno

    If I might just chime in here, I must agree with you and Mme. Moreno, as I have observed over the centuries that language adapts to the lives of the people. And I'm like, yeah this works for me. WAM