I’ve said it many times on the site: I have something of a love affair with the English language. Where some people moan over homonyms and homophones, or grumble about synonyms and antonyms, or the fact that tenses are so erratic, to me they are features, not flaws. Sometimes, that may lead me to be unnecessarily prolix, or to speak in horribly convoluted sentences in order to avoid a dangling preposition, but there’s simply something fascinating about the vast library of words from which we can choose. Yet when I was recently complimented upon my word choice in my stories, and asked how I choose one word over another, I sat back to consider the question and realized that I did not have a ready answer. I’ve been cogitating off and on upon the subject ever since, and this is my attempt to put some of those thoughts into…words.
As much as I enjoy joking that authors like Patrick Rothfuss must go through their revision process, come upon the word “the,” and ponder if some other article might be more appropriate in that place, there are many words that are more or less algorithmically defined by the way the language is structured and the way sentences work. I think of these as skeleton words, structural elements. If the idea to be communicated is the foundation of the sentence, skeleton words are the rebar that keeps that foundation durable and intact. Words like the, a, their, there, to, too, and, but, or (list is not exhaustive by any means, merely illustrative): these words form a structure upon which to build the substance of a sentence. Yes, there are technical, grammar terms to describe much of this, but I want to answer the question of how I choose words, not explain how English works, and I don’t sit down and consider the proper role of the indefinite article when I compose a statement.
Despite calling these words “structural,” they are not the start of a sentence. They come in as I build it, linking together the meat of the sentence, the nouns and verbs (we’ll get to adjectives and adverbs, the clothing and jewelry of a sentence, later). A sentence starts with an idea, something in my head that I want to convey, but where does that originate? Brandon Sanderson has spoken before in his classes about internal narratives, and how some people have an internal monologue, while others don’t verbalize directly in their own heads. I am a verbalizer, so ideas that form in my head seem to me to originate as words, which the give rise to images. More specifically, when I imagine my stories in my head, my internal monologue essentially tells me the story, and my brain generates images to go along with the words (this happens a lot when I run, for instance), but the story I tell myself in my head is not told in pretty sentences and coherent paragraphs. It’s a jumbled, disjointed, chaotic, repetitive, erratic, incomplete heap of narrative elements.
It is fair to say, therefore, that when I sit down to write a story, or on a smaller scale, when I start to write a single sentence, I am beginning with an idea, some concept or notion or image that I want to communicate to whomever might happen to read what I’ve written. Some elements of that idea can easily be put into words, for there are few or not options. If I want to refer to a specific character, for instance, I must either invoke their name, or use a pronoun, but I can only use a pronoun if I’ve recently referred to the character by name, so that the reader will know about whom I am writing. Even that can become complicated, if, for instance, a character has multiple names, or if referred to in different ways by different people, or even perceives herself in a different way when in different companies. A character who is a military officer, for instance, might refer to himself as Guardcaptain Vere in one circumstance, and just as Vere in another.
If the most basic structure of a complete sentence is simply subject-verb, then the next step is to choose a verb. Where choosing a sentence’s subject is fairly straightforward, choosing a verb to accurately and precisely describe what they are doing is far more nuanced. The common example is “I ran.” Yet if the idea is to express that I, whoever I happen to be, am accomplishing locomotion of my own power, then I have an immense array of suitable verbs from which to choose. Am I walking, running, jogging, sauntering, perambulating, ambulating, ambling, sprinting, stalking, striding, stomping, clomping, trudging, stamping, trekking, traipsing, plodding, dashing, stepping, pacing, trotting, galloping, cantering, dashing, strolling, loping, limping? This doesn’t even include words that don’t directly communicate the right idea, but might in context, like tearing, flying, fleeing, moving, sailing, gliding. Some options can be eliminated easily. If my character is supposed to be running away from a monster, then they are almost certainly not walking, jogging, sauntering, ambling, trudging, plodding, or strolling. Yet if they are running away from said monster, then they could easily be running, sprinting, fleeing, flying, galloping, or dashing.
Each of these words can communicate a very similar, if not identical, strict action, but they have quite different implications, and making a decision must ultimately rely upon the context leading up to the action, and the exact sense that I want to convey. This is where the oft-repeated “show, don’t tell” axiom comes into play. I could say something like “desperately, Kiluron ran from the demon.” Or I could say “Kiluron fled from the demon.” Both communicate the same thing, but the second is more direct, it “shows” instead of “tells.” It also has a very different tone that “Kiluron dashed away from the demon.” Both “Kiluron fled from the demon,” and “Kiluron dashed from the demon” communicate the same action, but have completely different implications. In the former, Kiluron is in danger and is trying to escape. In the latter, he may be trying to put some space between himself and the demon in order to launch a counterattack.
This starts to get at why I find the accusation that English has too many words that mean the same thing so frustrating. Yes, all of these words are synonymous, but synonymous does not mean identical. Every word I listed has a unique definition, and means something slightly different. Even ambulating versus perambulating: ambulating is just going for a casual stroll, while perambulating has the additional implication that you will return to the place from which you began. Knowing the nuances of the words from which I have to choose is a major part of how I make a decision about what word to use in a given situation.
From the jumbled words in my head, to the semi-coherent image in my head, I start crafting sentences based on the image, not on the original words (with a few exceptions, if I happen to have come up in my head with a particularly neat phrase, like “A man awoke in bed with two strangers, and one of them was himself”). I want what I put onto the paper to be reflective of the ultra-immersive movie my brain has generated based on the story that I originally told myself, if that’s not too confusing. I choose words that I think will best convey that story in a clear and coherent way, based on what I know of the definitions and connotations of those words.
Yet, even after all of this discussion, there still seems to be a gap, a question unanswered, that I have not quite dug to with all of this introspection. Maybe I will write another post in the future to try to get at it, or maybe one of you readers will post a follow-on question in the comments that will refine the uncertainty enough for me to provide an answer. In the meantime, I have some more words to choose for the next Blood Magic episode.