© Mignon Fogarty, Inc. 2011 all rights reserved
Words are your tools; words are your craft. Good storytellers can inspire readers with simple words--or even misused words--but good storytellers who get the words right will not only keep readers turning the page, but also delight their readers who love language.
These are some of the bugaboos that can jump out at a reader who cares about proper word choice:
“Hilarious” Versus “Hysterical”
Your damsel in distress who can’t be calmed after an attack is hysterical; the scene in which your murderer is foiled by a juggler, a baby, and a box of marbles is hilarious.
Although “hysterical” is commonly misused to mean “super funny,” it actually means “excited”--the upset kind of excited, not the happy kind of excited. “Hysterical” and “hysteria” come from the same Greek root, which means “womb.” Womb? Yes, it comes from the outdated notion that only women are emotionally excitable. Harrumph!
“Historic” Versus “Historical”
The Gutenberg Bible is a historic book, and your novel about 18th century England is a historical book. Important events or items related to history are historic; anything related to the past is historical. You can remember the difference by thinking that the “al” at the end of “historical” stands for “all in the past.”
“Infamous” Versus “Notorious”
Jack the Ripper was infamous; your detective could be notorious for her ability to sniff out imposters on Internet forums.
“Infamous” is always bad. It’s “famous” with a negative prefix. “Notorious” is most often used in a negative way, but technically, a character can be notorious for something good or bad, so it’s important to spell it out. If you write that your character is notorious for his cupcakes, a reader may not know whether the cupcakes are delicious or deadly.
“Purposely” Versus “Purposefully”
Your victim could purposely drop her purse to stall for time, and your murderer could purposefully point a gun at her and tell her to leave the purse on the ground. Something done purposely is done intentionally, on purpose. Something done purposefully is done in a way that is determined or resolute. You can remember the different by thinking that “purposefully” means “full of purpose.”
A second way to delight your readers with words is to play to a word’s origin. “Gregarious” can be used in many ways, but because it comes from a Latin word that means “part of the flock,” you can give logophiles a thrill by using “gregarious” in a sentence with the idea of birds or animals. “Jargon” originally described the chattering of birds (again with the birds!), and “nepotism” comes from the 15th century Italian word for “nephew” because popes often gave their nephews coveted positions. A bit of etymology browsing can go a long way in helping you find just the right word for your sentence or just the right double meaning to surround your words.
Mignon Fogarty is better known as Grammar Girl and is the author of the new books GRAMMAR GIRL’S 101 MISUSED WORDS YOU’LL NEVER CONFUSE AGAIN and GRAMMAR GIRL’S 101 WORDS EVERY HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATE NEEDS TO KNOW.