Critique Technique, Part 31—The Wrong Words

By Ross Lampert

Authors can and do go wrong with their word choices, or use words the wrong way. This isn’t just a case of not understanding Mark Twain’s illustration of the difference between the right word and the almost-right word: the lightning versus the lightning bug. It is that, but it’s much more.

Pencil eraser erasing "wrong word"

Photo by ningmilo via

 There are at least three ways an author can mess things up for herself and her readers when it comes to word choice. They are: using words that are wrong for

  • The story, usually in narrative;
  • The character, usually in dialog; or
  • The reader, in either one.

We’ll save obscenities and vulgarities for next time but let’s take a look at the rest in more detail.

Narrative words that are wrong for the story are ones that don’t match what the story is meant to be. For example, the sometimes-flowery, sophisticated, or psychologically dense language of “literary” fiction would be out of place in a western, say, or a thriller. Conversely, the taut, gritty language of that thriller would be jarring—in the wrong way—in a story examining the ins and outs of a couple’s troubled relationship.

That’s not to say, of course, that there couldn’t be a couple with a troubled relationship in a western or thriller, but the way that relationship would be depicted—the words the author would use—would be very different.

Writing above or below the level of the story, that is, using words that don’t match the target audience and the personalities of the characters makes the reader aware of the writing. Once that happens, that magical bubble we call a story pops and it’s hard to surround the reader with a new one.

Words in dialog that are wrong for the characters can have these same problems, plus a few more. For starters, we expect a longshoreman’s conversations to be very different from those of a college professor: brief, basic, and profanity-laced on the one hand, elongated, erudite, and perhaps elliptical on the other. What they talk about will be different, too.

When the content and style of a character’s speech doesn’t match what the reader expects, there’d better be a good reason for it. Maybe the professor used to be a longshoreman and in the scene in question he’s visiting his former buds at a bar near the docks. It would make sense if he used rough language there. If, however, he talks like a longshoreman while teaching electrical engineering, that’s be a problem.

Another problem in dialog is when a character reveals knowledge she has no reason to have. To take an extreme example, the reader’s going to be surprised if a manicurist at a nail salon in rural South Dakota uses the language of the branch of physics called string theory, say, and uses it correctly, while talking with her customers. If the reason why she understands M-theory and branes hasn’t been established, it better be, and quickly, or it needs to be replaced with something more appropriate.

A third problem in dialog comes up when a character expresses attitudes or beliefs that are contrary to what the reader knows, or thinks he knows, about that character. The Bubba who uses the language of the LGBT community—without irony or disrespect—or the shoe salesman who speaks like an investment banker is, in the immortal words of Ricky Ricardo, going to have “some ‘splainin’ to do.”

Words that are wrong for the reader include technical jargon, slang, local idiom, dialect, or foreign or obscure words, especially when the words’ meanings aren’t made clear through the dialog, narrative, or context. It’s okay to withhold information from the reader to build suspense or tension, but not to hide meaning. When that happens, the words throw the reader out of the story, whether it’s because he puts it down to go find a dictionary, or he hesitates, trying to puzzle the meaning out, and then struggles on (or worse, stops reading).

Here’s an example. A member of my writers’ group loves to expand his vocabulary with unusual words. That was fine until he used “mephitic” to describe the smell of a men’s room in a hotel in a mainstream story. Not only is mephitic an uncommon word, the context in which it was used allowed several different interpretations. The result was confusion, not clarity.

Of course, there will always be cases where any of these kinds of words will be both necessary and appropriate. The author may be setting up a contrast between the scene and the story’s tone or between a character’s past and her present. He may be using dialect or jargon to establish something about the character. As a reviewer, you need to be aware of the possibility the writer is doing something “wrong” to achieve a certain effect.

So what questions should you be asking when you review a work for these kinds of problems? Try these:

  • Did the author use language that felt out of place—too sophisticated, too simple, or otherwise inappropriate—for the story?
  • Did I have to stop reading to figure out what a word means?
  • Did it feel like the author was trying to show off by using fancy words?
  • Did a character use words that didn’t fit with what I know about him or her?
  • On the other hand, was there a purpose to what the author was doing with her word choices?

If the answer to any of these questions but the last one is yes, mark where the problem occurs and discuss alternatives with the author.

What do you look for when you’re looking for inappropriate words in a story?

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