The Glitch in the Matrix 2: Heads will roll…

Yes, it’s true: sometimes words can be – as Gollum would put it – ‘tricksy’, and very often it’s those little physical quirks which can cause the most problems.

Consider this conundrum which I heard on TV one evening:

‘My reflection in the mirror looked back at me like a bad smell.’

Huh?? There is a definite aroma of mixed metaphor with that one. Or rather, mixed simile (for the difference check out my earlier post ‘Shall I compare thee?‘) To start with, what exactly does a bad smell look like? Even if we manage to sort that one out, what’s the story with it looking back at you? Scary!

So please do take care that your hero is not accidentally foraying into the realm of physical impossibilities as he or she goes about their narrative business. In other words, keep an eye on what your protagonist’s eyes are doing. Are they following people across the street, rolling down mountains, sweeping across rooms or dropping to floors?

The human body is indeed a thing of wonder and it’s amazing what eyes actually can do, but, generally speaking, they tend to do it from the comfort of a person’s eye sockets rather than indulging in some perambulation of their own quite distinct from the rest of the body. Besides all that running, dropping and rolling sounds rather painful and damaging to the anatomical part in question.

Happily, a protagonist’s gaze or stare, on the other hand, can quite easily follow, roll, run or sweep across anything you wish.

The same rules apply to protagonists’ heads and other generally fixed parts of the body, by the way.

Of course if your hero is an animated cartoon character where anything goes, the above may not apply!

For other glitches in the prose matrix, see my earlier post ‘The Glitch in the Matrix 1: Dealing with Danglers‘.

The Glitch in the Matrix 1: Dealing with Danglers

 

A dangling participle walks into a bar. Sighing as he sits, the mirror behind the bar catches his weary reflection. ‘How’s it going, DP?’ says the barman. ‘Not good,’ says the dangling participle, ‘subjectively, I’m feeling a little mixed up.’

Yes, we’re on the thorny subject of dangling participles. Look closely at the second sentence in the above paragraph, and ask yourself, who is sighing and sitting? The DP or the mirror behind the bar?

How about these other examples:

Driving to work, the sun came out from behind the clouds.

Turning the corner, the hotel appeared in sight. 

Being in bad condition, I bought the book cheaply. 

So here’s the tech speak: an introductory participial phrase should give more information about (or modify) the subject of the main sentence. In the above cases, the subject of the main sentence is ‘mirror’, ‘sun’, ‘hotel’ and ‘I’ respectively. See the difficulty? The mirror isn’t sitting and sighing, presumably the sun wasn’t driving to work, the hotel didn’t turn the corner and, equally, I bought the book cheaply because it was in bad condition, not because I was. So the modifier is misplaced or dangling!

And the glitch in the matrix reference? Well, there is a scene in the film The Matrix where a cat climbs a stairs and the film glitches: it’s as if the cat imperceptibly rewinds itself and there is a moment of double-take or déjà vu. For me, dangling participles cause the same kind of problem in prose. Your reader may or may not be able to tell you the technical reason for the stumble or the double-take, but they will clock it on some level, and it could have a detrimental effect on their enjoyment of your writing, particularly if there is more than one or two in the manuscript. So, next time you lead with a participial phrase, please make sure there’s nothing dangling!

Even if you get it right, you should still spare a thought for the perils of overuse. Opening with a participial phrase can give a sentence fluidity and sense of energy, but check out the following:

Leaving his office, Johnny saw Simon was still working late. Stepping out into the street, he noticed the traffic was at a standstill. Raising his arm, he hailed a taxi cab. Riding in the taxi cab, Johnny noticed the taxi driver was actually a large seething mass of green alien plasma. Being alarmed, he shouted at the driver to stop. Being really annoyed by all the participial beginnings, the driver did not oblige. Hurtling through space in an alien spaceship, Johnny wished he’d been more careful with his sentence openings.

Yes, this cautionary tale of alien abduction is obviously an exaggeration of the problem, but it serves as a good illustration of the dangers of unintentional patterns in your prose which can ruin the effect of what you are actually trying to achieve.

Who nose what there talking about? (words and other confusions)

‘For by the word Nose, throughout all this long chapter of noses, and in every other part of my work, where the word Nose occurs, – I declare by that word I mean a Nose, and nothing more, or less.’

Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, 1761.

Through meaning 007The gentleman in Tristram Shandy may be fairly certain of his nose, but words and their meanings can be pretty tricky to pin down at times. For example, does our gentleman above mean the nose on his face or is he talking about having a good nose around or into somebody else’s business? Out of context it’s not entirely clear, is it?

One of the sly ways in which words can trip us up is by having two completely opposite meanings at the same time. These contronyms or Janus words (Janus being the Roman god with two faces) can be relatively common words such as ‘weather’ (‘the boat weathered (withstood) the storm, narrowly missing being dashed against the rocks weathered (changed or worn) by time’), ‘fast’ (to move quickly or solid and immovable), or ‘trim’ (‘she trimmed (cut away) the rough edges of the pocket, then trimmed (added to) it with a pretty silk ribbon’). By the way, ‘fast’ also falls into the homonym category – words which are spelled and sound the same, but have different meanings – think ‘fast’, as in not eating.  What a star!

Next on the confusion list are homographs: words that are spelled the same, but have different pronunciations and meanings. For example, ‘lead’ (as in down the garden path or what you walk your dog with) and ‘lead’ (the stuff you put on your roof).

Through meaning 010But the real celebrities in the world of confusing words are the homophones – those awkward blighters that sound the same, but have completely different spellings and meanings. This category contains such everyday bamboozling classics as ‘to’, ‘two’ and ‘too’; ‘their’ and ‘there’; ‘principal’ and principle’; ‘stationery’ and ‘stationary’, and, of course, every author’s favourites – ‘write’ and ‘right’. Rite? Grate, glad we’re all singing from the same him sheet. Otherwise it wood bee such a waist!

Yes, the sad truth is that these sneaky saboteurs of clarity can fool spellchecks and intelligent beings alike. No-one is safe, but a stout dictionary of any nature (physical or virtual) and/or a good copy editor can go a long way to keeping them at bay. If in doubt, check it out. The truth (or at least the correct spelling) is out their. Oooops…

I’ll put a spellcheck on you … !

I have a confession to make. I am something of a spelling nut. It’s all my father’s fault. When I was very little, he made me do my spelling homework with uncharacteristic vigour. I have never forgiven the word ‘soldier’ for the torment it caused my eight-year old self.  It took me days to get it right. But I never forgot it. And so began my obsession with the correct spelling of things.

As a twenty-something I was accused of being a schoolteacher (??) because I asked a waiter in a trendy restaurant why there were so many spelling mistakes and typos in their printed menu. And I don’t care what anyone says, spelling errors (for whatever reason) in business correspondence and documents make the writer and the company look unprofessional.

It is even more unforgivable when they crop up in a manuscript. After all, words are the foundation of a writer’s craft – they should be loved and cherished, and, most of all, spelled correctly! Call me old-fashioned, but I am regularly aghast at the amount of writers from all walks of life who rely solely on the spellcheck function of their word processing package to check their spelling. It’s the ‘if-there-are-no-red-wavy-lines-then-it-must-be-ok’ attitude. No consolation to the top-level Personal Assistant who sent her CV to a prestigious financial firm stating that she was an expert in dairy management.

Or how about the viscous serial killer? The police caught him easily because he was so thick (sorry, I couldn’t resist that one!). And if another person tells me they are loosing their mind, I can guarantee you that I will lose mine! Please don’t even mention predictive texting, because I am liable to start chewing the furniture.

Anyway, the moral of this sad little tale is: please, if in doubt, look it up in a dictionary. And double please – don’t rely on the computer spellcheck!  Why? Because it just checks spelling – it won’t check your work for reason, sense or context. Why should it? That’s your job!

As for me, I’m off for lunch: stir-fry vegetables with rice and a delicious desert of dark chocolate mouse to follow.  Yum!

Beware Mrs Malaprop! (Or how to illiterate mistakes and become the very pineapple of eligible writing.)

“… but above all, Sir Anthony, she should be mistress of orthodoxy, that she might not mis-spell, and mis-pronounce words so shamefully as girls usually do; and likewise that she might reprehend the true meaning of what she is saying.”

Mrs Malaprop, The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, 1775

Malaprop; malapropism [from the French mal à propos meaning ‘inopportunely’ or ‘at the wrong moment’.]:

Jester 002Sheridan wasn’t the first playwright to exploit the misuse of a word for one which sounds similar for comic effect (Shakespeare used it before him), but it is Sheridan’s creation that has famously given her name to the phenomenon. A useful weapon in the arsenal of the comedy writer perhaps, but be careful not to let one slip in unnoticed, as the effect may not be what you were expecting or hoping for. Couldn’t happen, I hear you say! Don’t be so sure. How about this gem which popped up in a letter from a professional correspondent assuring the recipient that they were happy to make an offer as a jester of goodwill?? I still chuckle every time I think of it.

And that’s what you need to keep in mind. If you are sending out a pitch letter or sample manuscript to an agent or, you want them to remember you as an amazingly talented writer, not as someone who can’t tell their ‘jesters’ from their ‘gestures’. Equally, if you are self-publishing, you do not want a reputation amongst your readers for comedy, unless, of course, you are intentionally writing comedy!

My advice?

Obviously, a good copy editor will sort out all such clownish behaviour on the part of your manuscript pretty quickly, but, basically, I’m with Mrs M. on this one: be a master or mistress of orthography so that everyone can comprehend the true meaning of what you are saying – it may save much embarrassment at a later stage.