Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A word or two

I've been on hundreds of panels during my years as mystery writer, and after a while the questions from the audience become fairly routine. Still, I love interacting with readers and try to find a way to give a fresh answer to queries like do you write every day? (more like every night); do you outline? (not if I can help it); and where do you get your ideas? (where don't I get ideas?)

A new question came up at the Benicia CA library last week. Ann Parker moderated a panel with Penny Warner, Claire Johnson, and me. The last question of the evening was: What do the four of you have in common?

It wasn't obvious since we all write different subgenres and have different writing styles and processes.

The answer came quickly, however: A love of words. Not in the abstract, but words themselves with their various nuances and their ability to heal or to start flame wars.

I remember a critique group meeting with my group when one of us was trying to nail down a title for her book. The question: whether to use a, the, or no article at all. We took almost an hour to talk about the differences. A City of Sorrows vs. The City of Sorrows vs. City of Sorrows. (That's not the exact phrase, protecting the innocent here, but the title had the same pattern.) A implies there are many of them; the, just this one we're focusing on; and none at all gives a more universal tone. And that was just the start of it.

Not only words themselves, but where you place them makes a difference.

One of my pet peeves is how writers often misplace the word only. Consider the different meanings, depending on where it's placed:

Only he sold me the house (not his real estate firm or his cousin, just him)
He only sold me the house (he didn't paint it or fix the roof)
He sold only me the house (not my husband or partner, just me)
He sold me only the house (he didn't include the tools in the garage)

What's your pet word peeve? Or your favorite word?


Peg said...

Not being a writer (just a dreamer about being a writer), I've note given a lot of thought to pet word peeves. But I am a reader, always with a book to curl up with when the day winds down, and enjoy immensely the way words are used by various writers. When this question was posed, my first thought was 'well whoever thought about it' - but then immediately came the thought 'I really hate to see signs posted with mispelled words'. It's not bad enough that there's an occasional misspell missed in a book, or a newspaper - but when there's no shame in putting that misspelled word out there for the world to see.... It always makes me wonder where the sign-writer went to school LOL

signlady217 said...

Ever watch Jay Leno's "Headlines"? Oh, my! The way some people misuse and abuse the English language! I wonder who the editors are who let this stuff through. Apparently, they don't know any more than the people they have writing for them!

Linda O. Johnston said...

I'm a word freak, too, Camille. I love to try to figure out which word will convey the exact nuance I'm looking for. Your example of how placement of "only" makes such a difference is great! I mostly swallow my biggest peeves these days, since they're often grammatical--and some former "rules" have apparently disappeared because of common usage.

Camille Minichino said...

Peg, don't you want to tear those signs down, or at least edit them?

The only "late night" tv my husband and I watch is the Headlines section of Jay Leno. They are indeed laugh out loud, but sad also!

Linda, I've had copyeditors change my correct grammar because it sounds "awkward!" Well, it wouldn't if everyone learned it!

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Camille, I love words, too. One of my peeves is the misuse of "anxious." People commonly say, "I'm anxious to meet you," but they really mean, "I'm eager to meet you."

Camille Minichino said...

Good one, Joanna!

Betty Hechtman said...

This isn't really a pet peeve, but I think slang references are funny. They are dated so quickly and then just sound stupid. Think "talk to the hand." A few words like "cool" and "hip" seem to survive. I wish I could remember something some hot singer used recently. I think it was a word meaning the noun vomit that was a compliment.

Anonymous said...

"Cool" comments; hope I'm "hip" to all of them. xoxox

Camille Minichino said...

I'm especially surprised at how long "cool" has survived. I think I used it in the 50's!

My nieces and nephews now also say "sweet" to mean the same thing.

Ellen said...

My pet peeve is the use of (word)'s to mean the plural of (word). That is NOT the function of an apostrophe!

Peg said...

Oh, yes - those signs tempt me to stop and rewrite them - and blast the original writer!!! LOL

Anonymous said...

Pet peeves:
misuse of your and you're
misuse of its and it's
And, like Ellen, adding apostrophes incorrectly to CDs, DVDs, 1980s, etc.

Susan said...

My pet peeve is using 'that' instead of 'who' as is "The people that attended the concert were disappointed by the program."

My other pet peeve stems from a regional difference. I have lived on the East coast for my entire adult life. People here say that they wait 'on line,' but my Midwestern roots lead me to rephrase that in my head every time as 'in line.'