Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Avoid Inappropriate Language In Your Writing (And I'm Not Talking About Swearing)

There is nothing more irritating than when you're reading along, and you come across a bit of inappropriate language in the book you were enjoying. Everything was going fine, and you were enjoying the read, but then the author decided to use that word. The word that yanked you out of the narrative, and left you frowning in disapproval. Maybe you kept reading, hoping it was a one-off thing, but it kept happening. After a while you just couldn't deal with it anymore, and you tossed the book into your "donate to charity" pile.

Because who the hell writes a sweeping, Viking romance novel where the lead uses the word "dude" all the time?

Not cool, bro. Seriously not cool.

What Is "Inappropriate Language" in a Novel?

A lot of people think of "inappropriate language" as anything pornographic; descriptions of sex, curse words, intimate detailing of gore, etc. All of these things are perfectly fine, and I covered some of that in my entry Profanity in Fiction: When It's Okay To Say "Fuck". That's not what we're talking about in this entry. This entry is talking about using language that, because of time period, genre, or your established world, will knock the reader out of the story because they know the language you're using doesn't belong here.

Got an example?
I do, since you asked!

Many years ago, I was editing a manuscript. The manuscript in question was pretty tropey, and it was full of some of my least-favorite favorites of the romance genre; past lives, split-screen telling where we bop back and forth between the now and the then, a heroine whose actions make no sense, and whose job is a sheer convenience of the plot... I could go on, but I won't. The problem I kept running into was the sheer lack of research put into the story, which was a problem given that half of it was specifically set in the 7th century in what was ostensibly the actual Middle East.

There were a lot of problems with these sections. There was no attention paid to the fashions that would have been worn, and the city we were in was never mentioned (though it felt like it was supposed to be Baghdad). No attention was paid to religious observances, and even the general layout of the city was sort of hand-waved away in case we began to notice that the setting the author was trying to use was flat and empty. In short, I was getting irritated. Fully half the manuscript seemed to have been an afterthought, just filling out the page count. Then we see our villain, who in the only mark of real fantasy, had unearthed and practiced some form of dark magic. The author referred to him as a warlock, and that was when my brain jammed on the brakes.

Why was that a problem, you ask? Well, the author clearly came from an Australian background, and was using a British English term for an evil spellcaster. Not an issue, if we'd found it in the modern-day sections of the story. The problem was that we had people in the 7th century in the Middle East, using a word that wouldn't be invented for another 300 years on the other side of the world. Here's some more on the etymology of the word warlock, if you're a nerd like me.

Was that the author's fault? Yes and no. This example is kind of obscure, however, it came as a result of little to no effort being put in to make the historical time period come across as either rich or genuine. A little research into the folklore of that area would have turned up all kinds of myths regarding magic users, and terms used to describe them. Even if all someone did was check the history, that person would find that the word sorcerer would be significantly more appropriate.

Small Pebbles Start Big Rock Slides

It might not seem like a big deal to use the wrong word every now and again, particularly if your audience still gets the point you were trying to bring across. But if you don't pay attention to the words you use, and the phrases that crop up in your work, then it can sneak up on you when you've done something that you cannot square with the world you've created.

The face you'll be wearing when it comes time to edit.
Here are some more, quick examples.

- Someone says "Yes, Fearless Leader!" while they're trying to be sarcastic. Problem is, the book takes place in a dystopian future where no one's heard of Rocky and Bullwinkle, which is where the phrase came from. How did it survive?
- Your hero's condition is referred to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The problem is that this is a WWI-era story, so it would be called shellshock. PTSD wasn't a term anyone conceived of until after Vietnam.
- The author describes the villainous banker's mustache by saying it made him look like Hitler. But the book is set during the Prohibition era, before the Nazi party's rise to power, and long before the celebrity of Adolf Hitler. Why would anyone not our modern reader get the reference?

Language is just like anything else in your story; it has to be seamless. In the same way you can't have heroes using certain guns ten years before they were invented without some kind of explanation, you also can't have colloquial slang from the 1980s crop up in your Civil War epic. Unless, of course, you are making the purposeful decision to use inappropriate language as a way to generate humor, or as a way to spoof the genre, tone, or setting in question.

If you're trying to play it straight, though, the devil really is in the details.

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  1. Enjoyed it! I use etymonline and a compact Oxford English Dictionary to check word origins for plausibility, if not authenticity. I remember throwing a book across the floor when the heroine's "castle" had casement windows, and her just washed hair crackled from the static. In medieval England. In the winter. *pah*

  2. My agent, who is also my first editor, is death personified with these hollow words. She loves killing "he nodded his head." What else can he nod? Or "she shrugged her shoulders." I don't know about you, but I find it difficult to shrug my butt when I'm sitting. Standing is a different issue. Great post, Neal. I printed you list and shared the post on FB and Twitter.