September 8, 2011 / 12 Comments

An Ode to OED

No, don’t worry. There will be no poetry.

There will, however, be mocking. And some shameless plugging.

Ex-Patriots is now out in both paper and ebook formats, available pretty much anywhere fine books are sold. Mysterious Galaxy, Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Bord… well, okay, not Borders. But I got to see Ex-Heroes there a few times, at least. Please feel free to pick up a copy.

Anyway, let’s talk about the Oxford English Dictionary. Or Webster’s, if you prefer. I’m actually a dictionary traitor. One of my college professors was on the OED board and I have a huge Webster’s dictionary on my desk.

But I digress… again.

Remember last week’s little rant about tools? Those folks who insist on carrying their tools around one at a time even though it makes the job take ten times as long? Well as bad as it is to be the person showing up on the jobsite with only one tool at a time, imagine if someone showed up with a basic tool they didn’t know how to use?

Seriously–what would you do if you were the foreman and one of your workers–someone who claimed they were a skilled, professional carpenter–admitted they had no idea how to use a hammer? Their excuse? “Well, y’know… I always work with Wakko, and he does all the hammering. So, really, I don’t need to know how to use one.”

Would this guy still have a job at the end of the day?

And yet, it’s stunning how many would-be-writers—people trying to convince publishers that they’re skilled professionals—don’t know how to spell. Their excuse? They’ve got a spellchecker on their computer. It already knows how to spell, so why should they learn how?

Words are our tools, and knowing what they are and how to use them is the most basic skill any of us has to have if we want people to take us seriously as writers. If you don’t know how to use them it is painfully obvious to someone who does.

Let’s go over a little list of words and see how many definitions you can get.

pour, poor, and pore – only one of these means to read intently

confirm and conform – one of these means to become similar

faze and phase – only one of these deals with a blow to the head

role and roll – only one of these is a list of names

further and farther – one of these usually refers to physical distance

glutton and gluten – only one of these words is a person

desert and dessert – only one of these comes after supper

barely and barley – one of these is a food source… almost

satin and satan – one of these is a silky fabric

lightning and lightening – only one of these is an atmospheric event

conscience and conscious – one means being awake

Done with the list? Good.

Now, I’m sure two or three of these made you laugh. Satan and satin? Really? I mean, they’re so obviously different words only a complete idiot would mess them up, right?

Bad news, everyone.

Your spellcheck program is a complete idiot. It’s the worst writing partner you could possibly ask to have. As far as it knows, your main character is supposed to be making a gluten of himself by shoving barely down his throat for desert.

Y’see, Timmy, whenever I make these lists they’re from words I’ve seen misspelled in manuscripts or screenplays I’ve been given to read. Not once or twice in a hundred pages but consistently. These are all mistakes made by people who were trying to convince me (or, through me, someone higher up) that they know how to write. People claiming to be professionals.

One story I recently read had someone trying to resist the temptations of Satin all the way through it (which makes it sound like a very different story, believe me). The power of Satin, get behind me Satin, resisting the will of Satin, all that. If the writer hadn’t asked an idiot to check the whole thing for them, they wouldn’t’ve had that problem. And my opinion of the story wouldn’t’ve dropped every single time I came across it.

I’ve said many times before that people need to buy a dictionary, and more than once I’ve gotten a chuckle from folks over it. After all, the computer does that sort of thing for us, right? Silly dinosaur, telling people to resort to books. Modern writers don’t need such antiquated tools.

As the above list proves, though… a sizeable percentage do.

Using a dictionary doesn’t just mean looking up how a word is spelled. It also means you’re going to look up what the word means. These two things are inherently bound together in a dictionary and they’re not in a spellcheck program. I look up barely and realize it’s not a grain, it’s an adverb. I also just learned that baresark is another form of berserker, which I can probably file away and use sometime later.

But the spellchecker? It looks at barely, grins, and gives you a big thumbs up. “Looks cool—send it off to a publisher.”

Plus, when you use a dictionary, odds are you’ll learn something and not need the dictionary next time. My mechanic’s worked on my car a few times, but I didn’t learn anything about auto repair because I wasn’t the one doing the actual work. I’ve also gone out to eat several times, but having someone else cook for me didn’t teach me anything about cooking. If your writing partner’s doing all that vocabulary work–idiot or not–how do you expect to learn anything?

I’m about to start my fifth novel. Not my fifth attempt at a novel. Not my fifth manuscript to sit in a drawer. My fifth already-got-a-contract-and-deposited-a-nice-advance novel. And I still reach for the dictionary at least once a day to make sure I’m spelling a word correctly or that I’m using it correctly. Using the dictionary doesn’t make me a lesser writer. It makes me a better writer. I’m the guy who shows up at the jobsite with all his tools and who knows how to use them. I don’t need anyone else to do the work for me. Which is why I’m the guy the foreman hires again and again.

If the foreman didn’t hire you… maybe it’s because you’ve got an idiot for a partner.

Not sure what I’m going to rant on about next week. I’ve got a half-formed post of random screenwriting tips. Also got one on villains. And the bare bones of one about motivations…

Any of those sound interesting? Let me know.

Until then, go write.

0 replies on “An Ode to OED”

Ewe are being two harah, Speiling is knot such a big deal and no-won cares that mulch about it they's days. Besides ewe are wrong about sum of you're words. Like Satin, for instants; don't ewe know hes the enemy of Cheeses?

tch, i've been on facebook too much, i just looked for the "like" button on Matthew's comment…

please can someone convince my son that spelling's important? Apparently they don't teach it in school anymore… or don't place very much importance on it anyway. And yes, i'm aware how old i sound saying that. 🙂

pants, also meant to say:

spelling's even more confusing when you live on the opposite side of the pond. Speaking to some proof-reading friends over here, we use "further" rather than "farther" when referring to both time and distance. And i still don't know the plural of "mongoose".

Anonymous, is better than a spellchecker, yes, but still not as good as a real dictionary.

People who use to check spelling don't get the word and the definition–they get the word, a pile of ads, and then the definition (with more ads on either side). Since most people ignore ads, they're more likely to just confirm that they spelled Satin right than to scroll down and see if it's the right word.

A physical dictionary isn't trying to sell anything or make additional money off you. It's the word, the definition, and nothing else. Fewer distractions, fewer mistakes.

And Rakie, according to Webster's it's mongooses. Go figure. 🙂

Hey, I've got one for you — what's the plural of ottoman?

Just couple hours ago, I read a yahoo news article and it spelled the word "prestigeous". Sometimes, there are words that you read that come to you like "off-key". You're not sure if it's correct; you often read that word enough that you take for granted its spelling. And then you see something like that and you think, wait a minute, there's something off about that. I actually typed that word in a Word document because I felt that way, and the spellchecker automatically corrected it to "prestigious". And I was, like, "Hah". There are things that you can rely on a spellchecker, and there are things that you don't. On Microsoft Word, you get to choose the setting; there's English (USA), English (United Kingdom), and a whole other English-es. If you set it as English (United Kingdom), then the word "disemboweled" will get you those squiggly red lines, because it's supposed to be a double "l" in UK.

You can also rely on an Encarta dictionary, if you have one installed in your pc. However, it's not complete; it doesn't have "prestigious" in it.

For your next post/s, can you talk about the process of making character sketches?

And here's another I remember — also from a yahoo news article or an MSN article, I'm not sure: "wrecking havoc". And it's a headline, like, really huge letters across the computer screen. They never edit nowadays.

Have you heard of dangling modifiers? This one's funnier than wrong spelling :=)

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