Friday, January 13, 2012

The Avoids, Part III: Melodramatic Words, Foreign Words, and All That Jazz

My last "Avoids" blog was quite some time ago,  and I felt a need to clarify a few more items. Remember, no hard and fast rules exist for these, but our sources do urge us to beware. The experts I most often use are Strunk and White,, and my all-time favorite, Elmore Leonard.

AVOID FOREIGN LANGUAGES: Best advice--write in English. That is, if your first language is English and you live in an country in which English is dominant, then stick to what everyone knows. If--in a desire to show off--you throw in foreign words or expressions with abandonment, you will only succeed in annoying your readers. And we simply must not annoy our readers. (No further explanation is needed about that.) However, remember: rarely will you find a definite rule for this, so by all means use a foreign word or phrase if it is fitting for your story.

AVOID MELODRAMATIC WORDS: Beauteous, prodigious, inchoate, fulsome, austerity. Now, there's simply nothing wrong with these words, but how many in your audience can immediately recall the definitions? How many of your readers will stumble over the word, which makes him stop reading? Trust me, you do not want your reader to stop because of something he cannot understand. Most all adults, though, can understand, beautiful, enormous, incomplete, flattering, or severe.

As more than one expert has said: "Don't use a ten dollar word when a ten cent word will do." Oops, I think I just used a metaphor--or at least, one of the below.

AVOID METAPHORS AND ALL THAT JAZZ: Idioms, colloquialisms, metaphors, aphorism, metaphors, simile, hyperbole, and personification.  All these words can be categorized under a more familiar term: Figures of Speech.  Lest you think I know the meanings and uses of all these, think again. I certainly do not. However, I can detect one in a text, although I couldn't correctly categorize it. All I know is if I read, "Quick as greased lightning," or "Hanky panky," or "Reading him the riot act," or "The apple of his eye," I will usually shudder slightly but continue to read.

Yes, I know I'm guilty. In one book I wrote, "All hell broke loose." did, and those are the only words I could write.
1. Why, then are there so many versions of one word? Maybe because the one that is used the most is the familiar one. I suppose if we'd begun to use "inchoate," then we wouldn't understand the word "incomplete."
2.  What's wrong with using a few foreign words here and there? Nothing, except the reason I gave--your reader may stumble over the word. We want our words to flow and move easily, not slow down to a crawl, as the reader wonders about their meaning.
3.  When is it more appropriate to use figures of speech?
Celia Yeary-Romance...and a little bit 'o Texas


  1. I agree with some of these no-nos but not all of them. Because of my timeperiod, there are so many foreigners I do slip in a word or phrase such as when Swedish singer said hello to her audience on stage, I had her first say it in Swedish and then in English. It worked both then and when she said good-bye. It sort of gave the flavor I needed. I do agree, however, if there is no way the reader can understand what is going on, then it shouldn't be used.

    Good post for thought. :)

  2. Paisley--according to my meager research, you did it the right way. A little goes a long way. Not often, but I have read books in which the characters used foreign words to each other, when they weren't that nationality. If you have foreigners in your book, of course!...they're going to use foreign words.The funniest and most enjoyable story had a Chinese cook and he always used Chinese words when he was angry. It made me laugh every time.

  3. Funny, sometimes it annoys me when I know the author is just being grandiose with a word--then again, it's kind of fun to look a new word up.
    I do despise the over use of foreign language, especially I'm left to wonder, "What the heck does that mean?" But I see the importance of a word here and there to enhance the chracter's foreign roots--even better when the author finds a way to let the reader know what the words mean.
    Provocative post, Celia.

  4. Good advice. Thanks for sharing. Anything that makes the writing flow is what I want to adhere to. I love poetry, so I may put in some poetic phrases. I'll need to watch out for those. Keep on my toes. LOL

  5. Sarah--yes, and it's funny to me what annoys some people and what doesn't. Me? I really don't like an unfamiliar word thrown in some ordinary conversation. Say what? fortunately, we all write pretty much clear of these things, but lately I've seeing more annoying phrases and words than I have in the past. Not sure why...but...well, it's annoying!

  6. Gail--I understand. I tend to use too many qualifiers and also too many "figures of speech." In the south, we live on "figures of speech," so it's a little difficult to stop. I should read my own post.

  7. Celia, I worry about this in my current WIP. The heroine and her household are Hispanic and I use Sí, tia, tio, etc. I think they are easily understood by context, but I wonder. Living in Texas means they are obvious to me, but I don't know about someone in Bismark, New Jersey, or Oregon.

  8. A good one, Celia. And I'm guilty as charged. The thing that irks me most is reading historical books that use today's language, such as "you know" to end sentences or "a couple drinks" without the "of" and other expressions not known to man before the present day. Equally irritating is using items like lemonade packets to make lemonade in the 1700s.

  9. Great post!

    I agree that it's generally best not to use foreign words, but I think using a few common foreign words is okay. For example, just about everybody is familiar with "adios" and "amigo." Having a character use those words in dialogue might help establish his ethnicity or remind the reader of his heritage, especially if the meaning is clear through the context in which it is used.

    I do like similes when they're not cliches, when they're not overused, and when they relate to the story. For example, nobody wants to read "bright as a new penny" but if your character is a computer guy and he says "bright as a new DVD," that might make sense!

    Overall, I'd say that using Figures of Speech can enhance a story, if they're using sparingly. But maybe that's just my opinion!

  10. Oops. Sorry for the typo. In my last paragraph my fingers meant to type "... if they're used sparingly."

  11. I think you're right about a little going a long way. I used "piece de resistance" with all the correct accent marks in place in one of my books. But the little old lady who said it did so with clear relish, so I think (HOPE) my readers will be amused rather than annoyed. A lot of foreign words does get old after a while. My pet peeve is accents. I get tired of characters speaking with an accent all the time. A few words scattered here and ther gets the point across without driving readers crazy.

  12. Mu current pet peeve (as you know, Celia!) is an editor who tries to replace my British words and phrases (spoken by British people in a story set in England) with American words and phrases, which would not be used here in England.

  13. Hi Celia,
    Interesting blog, very informative.



  14. Caroline--that's different. Maybe I didn't make myself clear. If the person is Hispanic, then by all means allow him to say a few Hispanic words, and maybe another answer in the common ones, such as Amigo. But..I'm talking about an English-speaking person just showing off in a book, using, Say, French phrases just to be doing it.
    Cest Le Vive--is an example, except that so common no one would notice.
    My first and third book has Spanish characters, and I allow them to speak a little Spanish, with the other character answering in such a way that the reader knows what was said...but I always move them into speaking more English.

  15. Linda--Really? Lemonade packet in the 1700's? That is the editor's fault, for sure. But I do agree here, too. In recent books I have seen modern day terms appear much more often than ever before.

  16. Sandy--sure. Saying Adios in Texas is not showing off--I'm not Hispanic, but I know some words and have used those in books for my Hispanic/Spanish characters. It's when an English-speaking person keeps spouting foreign phrases and terms--and that can become annoying.
    In looking up lists of phrases and idioms, I found that many titles of books are actually idioms. "Bet Your Bottom Dollar," etc. And they make good titles.
    Good points!

  17. Janine--that's an example of using a phrase wisely--it enhanced the character's personality.
    I, too, do not like accents. Dialects are sort of the same thing, but a little different. It's difficult to write both. In one of my books, I had the characters speaking with a Texas accent, and fortunately an editor said it just made the reader slow down...or even stop reading. I edited all that out, and it taught me a lesson. I could still use certain words or wording to identify my character.
    In Addie and the Gunslinger, I had the jailer say:
    "Git up, boy." and..
    "What else he got?"
    But he only appeared in the first five I got by with that. I wanted the jailer to appear uncouth and stupid.

  18. PAULA--I'm still thinking aobut that, Paula. I think your might have argued more with her--I think you have an excellent point, but sometimes it pays off to argue a little. However, if she's an editor like one I had a few years ago, there's no arguing...just made her mad.
    Ah, well. It will read just fine, because your true writing skills will come through.

  19. My heroes are all foreigners. But I minimize their foreign language use to very short sentences, immediately translated in English. I'm very annoyed by Spanish sentences I can't understand. But I'm fluent in French, and still have to see correct French in books. BTW Celia would you forgive me if I mention there is no such thing as Cest Le Vive-- Do you mean: C'est la vie?

  20. Celia, oops! My post today is pretty much opposite of what you've just said. LOL

    Goes to show, there is no one right way. Of course genre matters. But I like new words in books because much of reading, in my opinion, should be learning. And I use a lot of foreign dialect in my Rehearsal series, which I've heard about, but most readers say it threw them at first but they really enjoyed it once they got used to it.

    Most important is that a writer writes what she needs to write in the style she needs to write.

    Big words thrown in only to show off, no. Because they fit the sentence and the mood and the character, absolutely!

  21. My boss at the newspaper just called me on a word I had spelled two different ways: conclusory and conclusary. The lawyer and judge used them at a court case I was assigned to cover. Turns out conclusory is the correct spelling, but honest to God I'd never heard this word before. The meaning is that the referred to accusation is a conclusion and an interpretation of fact. In this case, it was deemed bad to have made conclusory statements.

    My first three novels had several cliches on every page. Fortunately we used those flawed tomes for kindling. I like to throw in a colorful phrase in dialogue every now and again but I try to do it so that it doesn't stop the story flow and can be easily understood.

    I have an unfortunate melodramatic streak. Whenever my CP tells me something is too over the top, I know to tone it down a bit and to use smaller words and actions.

    Great topic, Celia!


  22. Celia,
    Thanks for the tips, Sweetie. On occasion, if my hero is from another country, I might use a phrase or two of his language to give the reader a feel for "him," but it's usually any easy phrase that's understandable or explainable.


  23. Mona--you made me laugh! I have used that term in one novel..and I had to look it up, as I know absolutely no French. I do use Spanish, because I have Spanish speaking characters, but I have kept it to a minimum.
    This is all acceptable for our foreign characters...but to have an American man throw in French words or whatever--to show off or impress--then we don't care to read that. You are absolutely correct the way you use foreign languages. Thanks...

  24. LK--Yes. You can get by with that better than I can because of the type of writing you do. One reason I like to do the crossword puzzle it because of the new words I learn. But I wouldn't use them in one of my novels--too Texas, plain and simple.
    I do have a problem with too much dialect. However, I don't read novels very much set in Scotland or Germany. So, I don't see it much. When I have, I remember that very quickly I learned the dialect and kept right on reading.
    But the experts say to keep it at a minimum...or not at all. Maybe it depends on the expert!
    Thanks for your comment...

  25. MAGGIE--oh, I enjoyed your comment so much! Yes, I do think you have a melodramatic streak. I love your style of writing--could it be that's because we're both Southerners? Probably.
    And, oh, cliches...another entire post. The world of writing is filled with them!

  26. Steph--then you have the idea down pat. Oops, is that a cliche or something?
    I appreciate a writer who understands not everyone can comprehend severe dialect.Yours is just about right, and good for you! Thanks for stopping by.

  27. Celia,
    My pet peeves are cliches and, like Linda, when someone says "a couple pats on the back" without the "of" that GOES IN THERE AFTER "COUPLE"!!!!!LOL I had one lady I was editing for argue with me that "well, it can be either way"--NO. It CAN'T. Well, it can, but one of those ways is incorrect. Great post. I really enjoyed this. OHhhh, I have a LOT of pet peeves in editing...LOLLOL I forgot to mention--using things in a time period before they were invented (like the lemonade packets)--what I tend to notice is weapons (such as repeater rifles) that haven't been invented yet but are being used, nonetheless, in the story. LOL

  28. Interesting post. I agree with you on the cliches.

  29. Cheryl--yeah...Cliches. Very annoying most of the time..but sometimes they work if used correctly.
    I have to reasearch any weapon I use in a story, since I don't know much about them. At least the older ones. But you're right..the author really should pay attention. But more than likely, the reader won't know the difference.
    We could go on all day about annoying things authors are writing..but that's all I can handle right now! But I got it off my chest--oops, another cliche.