Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Sherlock, Shakespeare and Saxons

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I am a word nerd. I love words. I love grammar. I love etymology. I love vocabulary.

I know the difference between nauseous and nauseated, fewer and less, affect and effect. I know when to use who and whom. I cringe when I see apostrophes used to make plurals. And while I collect egregious examples of bad grammar and spelling, mostly just to share with my daughter, I really do try not to correct or make fun of people who use language incorrectly in public or use proper English as a weapon.

I absolutely adore Shakespeare, even though I must admit I have not read all his plays.

I get a kick out of, and actually have an opinion on, the argument over the Oxford comma, and the singular “they” question. I understand both sides of the adverb debate. 

The History of the English Language was one of my favorite classes in college. I love that although English is indeed heavily influenced by Latin, most Latin vocabulary is in the scientific and technical areas. Our everyday words are actually Germanic, Anglo-Saxon. About a quarter of our vocabulary is Germanic. 83% of the most common 1000 words in today's English are of Anglo-Saxon origin: concepts like heaven and earth, love and hate, life and death, beginning and end, day and night, month and year, heat and cold. Words like path, meadow, stream, house, mother, father, cow, God, gold, work, land, winter. Words that make up the bedrock of life.

When I watch TV or movies at home, I turn on the closed captioning, a habit which drives most of my family nuts. In a lot of shows, the actors speak very quickly, or on top of each other, or there’s an accent, or background noise or music, and sometimes I miss some words. I hate that. I figure that the writers worked very hard on those scripts, and I want to catch every single word. I wouldn’t want readers missing some of my words, after all.

Even before the birth of Christ, English become a ravenous borrower of words. We borrowed from the Vikings, the Normans, the French. This is the reason we have such a rich and varied vocabulary, chock full of synonyms. From the earliest eras, we have Anglos-Saxon vs Norman: sick/ill, wrath/anger, rear/raise, hide/skin. A person sitting atop a horse can be called a rider (from the Anglo-Saxon ritter), a horseman (from the Vikings' Old Norse hross), a knight (originally Old English cniht), a cavalier (from French chevalier), or an equestrian (Latin).

A while ago a video from the BBC series Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, made the rounds on Facebook among my writer friends.
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gnlhKWeDWMA]
The scene depicts Sherlock interviewing a prisoner in jail, trying to explain why repeatedly stabbing his girlfriend was just an accident. His English is abominable. “My father was a butcher and he learnt me to handle knives.” The inimitable Mr. Holmes first sighs loudly at every error, then corrects him each time. In the end he simply cannot deal with a client who doesn't speak English properly and walks away.

Now I realize others may find this a bit harsh, but I find that a completely acceptable reason to let someone be hanged.

He should have paid closer attention in school.

Or not stabbed his girlfriend.

His choice.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Story Trumps Style

EVAMARIEEVERSON2~Guest Post By Eva Marie Everson

Every writer knows that there are a few books gracing the bookstore shelves out there called "style books." I fear that is a misnomer. Perhaps they should be called "rule books."

A period goes at the end of a sentence. That's a rule.

How long that sentence is? That's style. As a Southern fiction writer, I am inclined to make my sentences a little longer than some. Start sentences in the middle. (See previous sentence for example.) Southern writers tend to drone on (and on) in their descriptions (you know, in case our Northern brothers and sisters don't quite get what we're trying so desperately to convey). In turn, when "critiqued" by other less-understanding writers or even readers, we get lines like "your sentences are entirely too long."

Well, that's style.

Just recently, after reading a string of books in which the writers broke all the writing rules, I realized that--in fact--what the authors had done was break rules of  style. Ah-ha. Now, did I throw the books across the room? No. Did I keep reading? You betcha (in spite of the fact that my editing brain would occasionally think: you just used that word in the previous sentence).

I pondered this.

I pondered this for quite some time.

And then it hit me ...

Story trumps style (and rules).

I didn't throw those books with all their broken rules and styles across the room because the stories within were fabulous! Compelling. Drawing me further and further in. Into the lives of the characters. Into their quandaries. Often putting me in the position of having to decide if I wanted to work and make money (for more books) or keep reading. 

As the president of Word Weavers International, as a teacher at writers conferences, and as a private writing coach and freelance editor, I get the "style/rule" questions a lot. 

"Make this one sentence a paragraph unto itself," I say to my client (or the conferee/fellow Word Weaver).

"But, my seventh grade grammar teacher said a paragraph has be x-number of sentences."

"That's a rule," I say. "That's not style. Forget the rules. Work on style."

However, after reading these last novels, I see the following in terms of importance:

  1. Story

  2. Style

  3. Rules

Whatever style you have, whatever rules you break, make certain you have a story that trumps them all.  Write in such a way that readers (and editors, etc.) simply will. not. care. that your paragraph only had three words in it. Or that your ellipses didn't have a space before and after it. Or ... whatever.

Story. Fiction or nonfiction--it's the story that draws your readers. It's the story that trumps all else.


51v9mro1yCL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Eva Marie Everson is a best-selling, multiple award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction. She is the president of Word Weavers International, the director of Florida Christian Writers Conference, and president of Pen In Hand, Inc. Her latest release, The Road to Testament, is set in North Carolina. She is currently writing a good story for Tyndale Publishing House, Five Brides, based on actual events in post WWII.