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April 18, 2019

Choosing Just the Right Words — Guest: Kathy Steinemann

Yellow and black "caution" stripes with text: Watch Out for "Wrong" Words

While I’m recovering from my latest surgery this week, I’m grateful for another guest blog today. Kathy Steinemann is here to talk about word choice, but not in the way we usually think of the issue.

We often talk about word choice in reference to our voice, but choosing the right word can be complex. We need to consider our characters’ voices, which can conflict with our voice, and sometimes we might want to break grammar rules for the sake of voice. In other words, knowing how to apply “the rules” with voice and word choice can require a tricky balance.

The problem increases if we unintentionally choose the wrong word from our brain, whether due to a lack of knowledge or just simple typos. (And typos can get the best of us no matter our knowledge level, so we can’t give ourselves a pass on the issue Kathy discusses in this post.)

Readers won’t trust that we’re breaking grammar rules on purpose if our whole story is riddled with errors. To make a statement with purposeful errors—such as for the sake of a character’s voice—readers have to recognize that we don’t make those mistakes accidentally.

Choosing just the right words requires us to know English usage and grammar rules, consider author and character voice, avoid typos, and of course, possess a large vocabulary so we can pick the best word from our brain. Kathy’s fun post today challenges us to find all the wrong words in an excerpt and then points out why we might choose them anyway.

Please welcome Kathy Steinemann! *smile*

*****

Reader Gripe:
Can You Guess What It Is?

By Kathy Steinemann

~~~~~

W A R N I N G

The following article contains explicit errors.

Reader discretion is advised.

If you continue past this point, your eyes might recover with rest, application of cold compresses, and avoidance of repeat exposure.

Proceed at your own risk.

~~~~~

You’ll see an excerpt below, an excerpt that would frustrate readers. In fact, they might abandon a book containing similar narrative, and never purchase anything else written by an author who is guilty of this no-no.

Introduction to Excerpt:

The following paragraphs are based on sentences and phrases I’ve bookmarked in various novels over the years. Can you find all the errors?

After reading, consider the following questions:

  • What is the problem?
  • How many occurrences are there?
  • How would you correct the mistakes?

Excerpt:

(Edited to Preserve Anonymity of Writers)

Pauline stared at the note, curiosity peaked. She opened it and read the message: “Just one weak. Remember the place? I’ll meat you their. Don’t forget the money. I may seam nice, but just because I haven’t killed anyone yet doesn’t mean you won’t be the first.”

Her stomach serged. Bile rows into her throat. The next thing she new, she was doubled over the toilet and wretching up her breakfast.

After several minutes, she stood and liened against the wall. She was still realing and could feel the vanes in her neck throbbing in thyme with her pulse. The sealing seamed like it was pressing on her head.

Ugh. Her breath wreaked, and all the vomiting had aggravated her rye neck. She needed her left shoulder as she looked into the mirror. Her reflection looked pail—to pail. How am I going to get threw this?

Did You Find All the Incorrect Homophones?

Test Yourself! Can you find all the homophone errors in this excerpt? by @KathySteinemann Click To TweetHomophone: a type of homonym; words that sound alike but have different meanings and spellings.

Go back and count them.

You should have found twenty-two. If you didn’t, read it again.

Still stymied?

Read this edited version (mistakes underlined).

Pauline stared at the note, curiosity peaked. She opened it and read the message: “Just one weak. Remember the place? I’ll meat you their. Don’t forget the money. I may seam nice, but just because I haven’t killed anyone yet doesn’t mean you won’t be the first.”

Her stomach serged. Bile rows into her throat. The next thing she new, she was doubled over the toilet and wretching up her breakfast.

After several minutes, she stood and liened against the wall. She was still realing and could feel the vanes in her neck throbbing in thyme with her pulse. The sealing seamed like it was pressing on her head.

Ugh. Her breath wreaked, and all the vomiting had aggravated her rye neck. She needed her left shoulder as she looked into the mirror. Her reflection looked pailto pail. How am I going to get threw this?

Here’s One Solution

Pauline stared at the note, curiosity piqued. She opened it and read the message: “Just one week. Remember the place? I’ll meet you there. Don’t forget the money. I may seem nice, but just because I haven’t killed anyone yet doesn’t mean you won’t be the first.”

Her stomach surged. Bile rose into her throat. The next thing she knew, she was doubled over the toilet and retching up her breakfast.

After several minutes, she stood and leaned against the wall. She was still reeling and could feel the veins in her neck throbbing in time with her pulse. The ceiling seemed like it was pressing on her head.

Ugh. Her breath reeked, and all the vomiting had aggravated her wry neck. She kneaded her left shoulder as she looked into the mirror. Her reflection looked paletoo pale. How am I going to get through this?

But Wait; There’s More!

Dialogue, written notes, texts, and emails should emulate the way real people speak and write. The blackmailer might be uneducated—or an educated person trying to seem uneducated. In either case, the note would contain errors.

In fact, it would likely contain more errors than those in the original excerpt.

Another Rendition of the Note:

“Just one weak, remember the place? I’ll meat you their, don’t forget the money. I may seam nice but just because I ain’t killed no one yet don’t mean you wouldn’t be the first.”

It’s time for detective work.

The blackmailer, although clever enough to:

  • mix up homophones,
  • include a couple of comma splices, and
  • drop in a double negative

couldn’t resist proper usage of apostrophes. A detective might consider this a clue that the writer is well-versed in spelling and grammar.

Takeaway:

Research every word you’re unsure of. Readers and editors will lose patience if they have to repeatedly stop and reread sentences.

P.S.

Here are the contextual definitions of the incorrect homophones and their replacements.

  • Peaked [adj.]: pointed, having a peak
  • Piqued [adj.]: aroused, stimulated [And spell it right: piqued, not picqued, which is obsolete.]
  • Weak [adj.]: frail, feeble
  • Week [noun]: seven days
  • Meat [noun]: the flesh of an animal used as food
  • Meet [verb]: to encounter, make contact with
  • Their [pron.]: possessive case of they
  • There [adv.]: in or at that place
  • Seam (1) [noun]: the stitched area that joins two pieces of fabric or other material
  • Seam (2) [verb]: to join with a seam
  • Seem [verb]: to give the impression of
  • Serge [noun]: a type of fabric
  • Surge [verb]: to move suddenly and forcefully upward or forward
  • Rows [noun]: plural form of row: a line of people or things
  • Rose [verb]: past tense of rise: to come or go up
  • New [adj.]: discovered or created recently or for the first time
  • Knew [verb]: past tense of know: to realize, comprehend
  • Wretch [noun]: a person who is unfortunate, despicable, or unhappy
  • Retch [verb]: to vomit, gag, puke
  • Liened [verb]: past tense of lien: to make a claim against property (until a debt or loan is repaid)
  • Leaned [verb]: past tense of lean: to move into a sloping position
  • Real [adj.]: actual, authentic, genuine
  • Reel [verb]: to lurch, stagger, sway
  • Vanes [noun, plural]: short for weathervanes
  • Veins [noun, plural]: the conduits that transport blood in one’s body
  • Thyme [noun]: an aromatic herb used for seasoning
  • Time [noun]: tempo
  • Sealing [verb]: present continuous tense of seal: to fasten, secure, shut
  • Ceiling [noun]: the top interior surface of a room, compartment, cell, etc.
  • Wreak [verb]: to inflict great harm or damage
  • Reek [verb]: to stink
  • Rye [noun]: a grain used for cereal, flour, or some types of whiskey
  • Wry [adj.]: twisted or distorted
  • Need [verb]: to require something essential or important
  • Knead [verb]: to massage or squeeze with the hands
  • Pail [noun]: bucket
  • Pale [adj.]: lacking color, ashen
  • To [prep.]: toward
  • Too [adv.]: excessively, very
  • Threw [verb]: past tense of throw: to toss, pitch, heave
  • Through [adv.]: from first to last or beginning to end

*****

Kathy SteinemannKathy Steinemann is a multi-genre author who has loved words for as long as she can remember—especially when the words are frightening or futuristic or funny.

Her career has taken varying directions, including positions as editor of a small-town paper, computer-network administrator, and webmaster. She has also worked on projects in commercial art and cartooning.

Her Writer’s Lexicon series and award-winning blog have inspired many writers, who have left comments such as:

The Writer's Lexicon“My rating standard is 1 to 5 stars. But The Writer’s Lexicon … is a 10-star read.”

“As someone who reads a lot of books about how to write books, The Writer’s Lexicon may be one of the most in depth I’ve ever read.”

“I am amazed at the wealth of material contained in this blog. Thank you.”

“Thanks so much for your invaluable posts, Kathy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve referred to your lists to help me portray character expression.”

You’ll find Kathy at the following sites:

Amazon | Barnes&Noble | Chapters | Facebook | Goodreads | Kobo | Pinterest | Smashwords | Twitter | Walmart

*****

Thank you, Kathy! I know I’m not alone in enjoying the “grammar quizzes” and the like online, so this was a fun test for myself. (And yes, I found all the errors the first time through, but I’ve also typoed with the peak instead of peek mistake in my writing, so I’m proof that knowledge alone isn’t a cure-all for this problem. *sigh*)

For many of us, we might look at that list of homophones above and think, “Yeah, yeah, I know all those.” But knowing the correct meaning of words is not a guarantee we’ll never make a homophone error.

On social media, writers occasionally share interesting or amusing typos they come across in their work while editing. Over the years, I’ve noticed that many of these typos hint at how our brain processes story ideas and translates them into the movements of our fingers.

For the most part, these typos indicate that many of us don’t think of how to spell our words as we type, pressing each letter deliberately as we go. Rather than thinking about how to get the words on the page, we might tell ourselves the story in our head and let our fingers “eavesdrop.”

What that means is that most typos come from our fingers getting the story “second-hand,” in a subconscious, muscle-memory way. We might drop the smaller words, like the or to. Or our fingers might type out a similar sounding word or phrase, such as the homophones Kathy mentioned or even something ridiculous like “cats up ladder” instead of “catch up later.” (Yes, I’ve seen authors mention typos along those lines!)

In other words, even if we know the right word to choose, our fingers might type out the wrong word in a game of “sound alike.

That’s why it’s doubly important to learn the common errors and keep an eye open for them as we self-edit our work. If readers notice that we’ve picked the wrong word, not only will they doubt our writing skills, but they’ll be distracted and taken out of the story—neither of which are good for keeping them turning the pages. *smile*

How did you do with Kathy’s quiz? Have you seen homophone errors in published books? Have you made typos or homophone errors in your writing? Are you able to find them during self-editing, or do you need a second pair of eyes to help? Do you have any questions for Kathy?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Kathy Steinemann

Thanks for this opportunity to interact with your followers, Jami.

Lenny

Eye preys you fore taking thyme to right about homophones. One thyme eye red a paragraph that had ate wrong wons. Eye was bold over bye so many of them. Sum writers don’t have a clew. I hope they reed yore article. Isle be glad when they get it right awl the thyme. Publishers shouldn’t be aloud to publish until they altar awl the mistakes awl the thyme.
Thanks for a cool article!

Kathy Steinemann

Oooooo, Lenny, eye love you’re response. Thanks fore stopping bye!

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thanks Kathy! I had to stop reading and just skimmed – too painful. How did you even manage to type that? I caught the correct apostrophe use right away and wondered if you would mention it – of course you did.
I tend not to type homonyms but a speech to text program could easily do that. Trouble is that the spill chucker won’t catch them.

Kathy Steinemann

Spill chucker? Excellent, Clare.

I’ve seen all these homophone abuses over the years, although not in such eye-smarting concentration.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Wishing you well for a good recovery, Jami.

Mike

It hurt to read that excerpt! I guess we have to suffer to learn.

Kathy Steinemann

Yup! “The reward of suffering is experience.” ~ Harry S. Truman

Thanks for stopping by, Mike.

Julie Glover

I cringed right away when I read “peaked” instead of “piqued,” and then the torture just kept going! But it made the wonderful point that checking your words matters. Thanks for covering this great topic. And I’m eager to get my copy of The Writer’s Lexicon.

Kathy Steinemann

Thanks, Julie. “Torture”–an appropriate word.

Why is this type of writing so commonplace? Lack of education? A rush to publish? Indifference? Maybe a combination.

Have your eyes recovered? 🙂

I hope you enjoy The Writer’s Lexicon, and thanks for visiting Jami’s blog!

K. DeMers Dowdall

I purchased the Writer’s Lexicon by Kathy Steinemann a few weeks ago and I honestly do not know how I lived without it before. For writers currently writing a novel, this is the very best, and most wonderful writing help that a writer could ever want. I have tabbed every section of Writer’s Lexicon, copied down all of the Common Pitfalls (words) and by using Advanced Find on my word (365 app) I found that I had written the word “Look” 303 times, the word “turn” 211 times, and “smile” 162 times. Within the Writer’s Lexicon, I found dozens of alternative words that expressed my intent a thousand time better. Thank you Kathy, and I am buying volume two as well.

Kathy Steinemann

Thanks, K!

I’m glad you find it useful. If you have any words you’d like me to research for Volume III, please let me know.

Good luck with your WIP.

Lindsey Russell
Lindsey Russell

Excellent examples of typos that are homophones but those sneaky little devils come in other guises as well. They can be caused by a ‘sticky’ keyboard – where you intended to type ‘there’ but the ‘t’ failed to register and you end up with ‘here’ (the spell checker won’t catch that), or ‘fumble fingers’ where the intention was to type ‘bin’ but the finger hits the wrong key and you end up with ‘bun’ (the spell checker won’t catch that either) – hopefully the grammar check will spot them but I find those green squiggles so aggravating while writing the first draft I turn mine off.

Kathy Steinemann

Ha ha, Lindsey. I turn mine off on the first draft as well. When I’m proofreading, I increase the zoom to 120% and change the font. That’s when I re-enable the spell checker.

My version of Word has red squiggles–even more aggravating than green.

Darn those fumble fingers, right?

Thanks for stopping by!

Lindsey Russell
Lindsey Russell

Hi Kathy – mine does red squiggles for ‘spelling’ mistakes too. I turn that off as well. It throws a wobbly over a lot of names, whether characters or places.I’m in the UK and years ago my address was Smokejack Hill, Horsham Road, Wallis Wood, Dorking – the spell check on a long gone desktop computer insisted I lived at Smoke jack hill, Wally Wood, Docking 🙂

Kathy Steinemann

I envisioned something more inventive than what the spell checker suggested. 😉 I’ve added my name and a few other often-used words to my Word dictionary.

Lindsey Russell
Lindsey Russell

Ugh! Getting late (gone midnight here) missed the ‘Horse Road’ – because I’m partially dyslexic I’m wary of adding words to the dictionary in case I key them in wrong.

Kathy Steinemann

You can check your dictionary occasionally to see what words it contains:

File ==> Options ==> Proofing ==> Custom Dictionaries ==> Edit Word List

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