Critique Technique, Part 31 — The Wrong Words

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 definition 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 half a dozen 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 dialogue; or
  • The reader, in either one.

Authors can also simply use the wrong word when they don’t know the difference between two or more words or what a word actually means. And then there’s the trap of trying to be too clever. We’ll save obscenities and vulgarities for next time but let’s take a look at the rest in more detail.

Wrong for the Narrative

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.

Wrong for the Dialogue

Words in dialogue 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 don’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 a problem.

Another problem in dialogue 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 things like 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 dialogue 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 LGBTQ 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.”

Wrong for the Audience

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 dialogue, narrative, or context. It’s okay to withhold information from the reader to build suspense or tension, but not to confuse or distract the reader. 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).

A former member of my writers’ group loved to show off his extensive vocabulary by using unusual words. For example, he used “mephitic” to describe the smell of a men’s room in his autobiography about his time as an enlisted soldier. Not only is mephitic an uncommon word, it didn’t fit the story or his primary target audience. (It, and other words like it, did emphasize how out of place he was in that world, but that was already clear from the story itself.)

Misunderstood Words

Homonyms and homophones are the landmines of the English language. Homonyms are words that share the same spelling but have different meanings, such as quail and bear. Both can refer to animals, but quail also means to cower in fear, and it’s a curdling agent too! Bear also means to carry, to endure, or to uncover or be uncovered! has a short list of homonyms, but there are many others.

Homophones are words that sound alike when spoken but are spelled differently and have different meanings. Some of the best known are to, too, and two; their, they’re, and there; and affect and effect. has an illustrated list of over 300 homonyms and homophones.

People who pun use homonyms and homophones all the time. It’s how we role—I mean, roll.

Humor writers use words called malapropisms intentionally because the word substitutions can be hilarious: “he’s the suppository of all knowledge around here” (suppository, not repository). Unfortunately, these substitutions can show up in new writers’ work unintentionally if they have mis-heard or misunderstood a word in the past.

Trying Too Hard

My earlier example of my friend using mephitic instead of sulfurous is an example of trying too hard. Other times it happens when a writer gets bored (with using “said” over and over, for example) or wants to stand out somehow. One of the most infamous—and giggle-inducing—examples is using “ejaculated” instead of “exclaimed.” Yes, technically, ejaculated could be used to describe words bursting forth from a character, but we all know the word isn’t typically used to refer to words these days.

On the Other Hand…

Of course, there will always be cases where any of these kinds of supposedly wrong 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. She may be using dialect, jargon, or incorrect or inappropriate words to establish something about a character. As a reviewer, you need to be aware of the possibility the writer is doing something “wrong” to achieve a certain effect.

Questions for You

What questions could you ask 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 meant?
  • Did the author apparently not understand what a word meant?
  • 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?
  • Is the author consistently but unintentionally making homonym or homophone substitutions?
  • On the other hand, was there a purpose to what the author was doing with her word choices? If so, how effective was it? If not, why was it not effective?

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

What do you look for when it comes to inappropriate words in a story? Please be careful to avoid spreading contusions 😉 when you provide your answers in the comments box below.

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