When editors speak of language usage, we’re not talking about potentially offensive terms. At least, not exclusively. We’re talking about taking care with the words you choose and avoiding those Vizzini moments.
☐ Usage is in accordance with convention.
If you’re using a word just because you’ve heard or read others use it, and especially if you’re using it because you found it in a thesaurus, it’s vital to ensure that it means what you think it means before you submit your manuscript for publication.
Here are just a few Vizzini words that I encounter far too often:
Hemisphere — Half a sphere. Don’t use it to describe half of something that’s not globular.
Epicenter — The point on the earth’s crust above (epi = over) the origin point of an earthquake. It’s not just a fancy word for middle.
Ground Zero — The site of a nuclear blast or the place in New York City where the World Trade Center used to be. It’s not to be used to label the origin point or nexus of just anything. Unless you’re describing vast destruction and death, don’t use it.
Usage covers not only using words in the right way, but also avoiding words that have changed meanings in such a way that they are no longer clear. Federalist, for example, originally was used by those who advocated for a strong central government, but now is often used to describe a decentralized system by those who oppose a strong central government. Its meaning is so blurred the word is useless.
Offensive language also falls under the usage banner. What is allowable varies widely with audience. In Christian fiction, we often cannot get away with even the mildest expletives. In the general market, though, even a smattering of f-bombs may not draw too much ire. But if you get up to Good Will Hunting level, you may draw negative reviews. So consider what your target audience will tolerate.
Any sort of bald-faced stereotyping or insult aimed at a whole people group is right out. Unless you put it in the mouth of an Archie Bunker–type character who is clearly being mocked for his backward attitude, just don’t go there. If you’re going to depict any kind of prejudice or discrimination in your story, it’s best to examine it from both sides and show at least an effort, on the part of at least one protagonist, toward reconciliation. To Kill a Mockingbird and The Help are examples of this.
There are several myths around word usage, for example, that decimate cannot be used to describe total destruction (on the argument that the original Latin word means to remove a tenth). These are nonrules.
So how do you know which words can be used in what way? At the risk of sounding like your mother, you look them up.
Any good dictionary will offer usage notes on the most troublesome terms, and there is a usage chapter in The Chicago Manual of Style. For even more usage detail, you can turn to either Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage or Garner’s Modern American Usage. I prefer Garner because he is the author of Chicago’s usage chapter. Also, GMAU was updated in 2009, but MWDEU hasn’t been updated since 1994. GMAU tends to be more prescriptive (telling you what you should do) while MWDEU is more descriptive (telling you what most people are doing). All of these should be available at the reference desk of your local library.
Words are the atoms from which we create the substance of our stories. We must have an understanding of what they mean and how they are properly used.
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