.I recently finished editing a book which was riddled with misused words, i.e. those which meant something entirely different to what the author obviously intended in the particular context it was used. Aside from the general frustration this raises in any editor, it also started me thinking. Is this erroneous word usage a daily habit in speech, or is it limited to ‘writing English’ where authors use impressive-sounding words in the mistaken assumption that it ‘elevates’ their narrative?
Sadly, all it does is highlight either incompetence or insufficient understanding of what words or phrases actually mean. Or both, because limited knowledge carries the burden of developing competence if one is serious about writing.
Admittedly, these errors can make for a good chuckle, but I doubt that is ever the author’s intention. Your editor is far more likely to develop irritation rather than be grateful for the humour if there are too many. There is a huge difference between the odd slip-up of words that may ‘sound similar but mean different’ – elapsed and prolapsed, for example – and the habitual problem of misused words that don’t fit the context at all.
Competence is two-fold. It’s the ability to apply vocabulary correctly, but it’s also the willingness and the ability to self-edit. These both presuppose a solid and reliable knowledge of what words actually mean. And this, of course, is the root of the problem. We cannot competently use what we don’t have. Self-editing is useless if we don’t have the knowledge.
So how, then, do we avoid this? It’s a simple answer, but it does require a little ‘elbow grease’ or effort. As a child, I was encouraged to read with a dictionary at the ready. It’s a good habit. The basic ‘rule’ was if I didn’t know with absolute certainty what it meant, I’d pause and look it up. There is, of course, the irritation of interrupted reading. The other way is to have a notebook handy, jot the words down, then look them up after you’re done reading.
There really is no other way to build a solid and reliable vocabulary. You can have all the words in the world at your fingertips, but if you don’t know their proper meaning, they’re essentially meaningless. The power of words lies in what they convey. If that is contrary to your real message, or worse, if it has your reader chuckling at the mental image the misused words conjure up, the power in your writing is gone.
As authors, we must work to hone our craft. Everything worth doing requires preparation. It requires checking and double-checking. But, at the end of the day, it’s worth it when the power of words finds release. And, as a bonus, you’ll make your editor one very happy person…