Monday, July 11, 2011

Two Ways to Delight Your Readers with Words by Mignon Fogarty, the Grammar Girl

© 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 Yes, it comes from the outdated notion that only women are emotionally excitable.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. 



Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Mignon, it's such a pleasure to have you here on MB4 today! I've used and reused your guides frequently over the years, and look to you for answers on those pesky words that sound alike but are so different, like "affect" and "effect." Your aardvark analogies really help! I still remember "the effect on the aardvark was eye-popping." (hope I have it right, LOL) Take good care and come back soon.

Kim Smith said...

What a pleasure to have you today! I feel so much smarter from having read this. The hysterical/hilarious one got me. Guilty! Thanks!

Cameron said...

Thanks for the tips. I am not sure I would have gotten historic versus historical correct without the comparison here. Appreciate it!

Sheila Deeth said...

Cool tips! I was looking at immanent, imminent and eminent recently.

FrankMorin said...

Love the tips. Thanks for all you do to help the rest of us look like we know how to write.

Nancy said...

Mignon, I've been a fan of yours for several years- ever since I first came upon your grammar tips and your first book. Dare I say that you make grammar FUN?

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Thanks all for stopping by, and Nancy, you were the one who introduced me to The Grammar Girl a while back. Thanks for that!

Also, Mignon has a wonderful website for those who might need a quick question answered -

I suggest you all bookmark this page!

Mignon said...

Thanks, everyone! I'm glad you find my tips useful.