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‘.

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!