Thursday, April 14, 2016

Words of a Feather

 The words "always" and "never" have taken enough flack from social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists to provide ample warning to writers:  Leave these words alone for the sake of clarity. Always means at every time; never means at no time. When used as a way of initiating conversation, they serve the equivalent of dousing a fire with petrol in the service of extinguishing the fire.

Doesn't work. Nor does the situation get any better when an individual is accused, "You always--" or "You never--" For your part in the matter, you could see using those two words to initiate dialogue, but--dare you say it?--never with the intention of initiating conversation. Besides, you try to remain a writer. Why would you have any truck with conversation in the first place?

Another word to give the writerly cold shoulder is "ever," particularly in the context of, "All I ever wanted--"  Who cares about a character who has only wanted one thing? True enough, you want characters to be focused on something, but ever is not up to the standards of a lively and evocative writer's vocabulary.

Take a moment to think about slightly, which, in addition to being an -ly adverb, indicates a small but indeterminate amount. He was slightly annoyed. She was slightly impatient. We don't have a clear picture yet of either of them, which is barely (sic) acceptable (also sic), because in story we want enough to go on to allow us to form what we believe is a picture reflecting the author's intent.

Good luck with story reflecting the author's intent when we're tied to words that fail to suggest a tangible condition. Of course, barely earns its way onto the FBI List of suspect words. 

Forget all about it being an -ly adverb; barely attends the same vague meetings as its cousins, slightly and scarcely. All three words do, on close examination, suggest a measure or difference of extent, but not enough to be useful. A writer who uses such words in effect requires the reader to carry some sort of measuring device with which to assess degree. 

Was he barely over five seven or scarcely there? And even if the reader can point to a tangible difference of degree between the two, does the writer actually (aha, another one) think the reader is going to stop in the middle of the offending sentence to compare and contrast both words?

While we're on the subject of the slightly and scarcely tropes, yet another adverb, almost, raises its hand to be recognized, more than a little confident in its assurance that by degree it means "almost." Almost there. Closer to destination than the point of departure. We look at the word as though it were being presented to us by a salesperson who has an aggressive sales goal. After a few minutes, we nudge it.  "Go ahead," we tell it. "We'll use you.  But be careful. Don't let us catch you equivocating.

And what, pray tell, does actually mean? One way to look at it is as "really" or "in reality,"  But.  Saying of a character that she actually meant what she was saying opens the door for suggestions, doesn't it, that unless the tag "actually" is used every time she means what she says, all her other dialogue is tainted?

You can with some ease visualize situations in which the adverb rather makes no bones about the intention of its meaning relating to a preference. He would rather have pistachio ice cream than rocky road. The use of the would is a help in distinguishing the usage. But if something is rather too much, the something modified by rather is not as definitive as it might be,is it? In fact, you'd have a difficult time, were you to try to visualize it, which becomes the antithesis of what drama should do.

You heard that, right? Drama is supposed to allow you the luxury of seeing characters, settings, and relevant animals in a degree consonant with the theme of the story, the tone in which it is told, and some tangible sense of the obstacles the main character needs to overcome.

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