Tag Archive | meaning

Confessions of a sentence-wrangler

“There is no use crying over spilled milk… Spilled coffee however, may get you stabbed.”

“There is no use crying over spilled milk… Spilled coffee however, may get you stabbed.”

If I had a dollar for every time someone (often a co-worker) asked me an obscure grammar question (often to settle an argument with someone else), I’d probably have enough to buy a second car (and a really nice one, at that). If, however, I had a dollar for each time that one of those thousands of questions involved an actual rule of grammar, I might be able to get a latte or two. By which I mean, a lot of what people think of as grammar is actually about style or usage or it’s about spelling. And even more important, language isn’t like physics: it isn’t defined by anything analogous to the fundamental underlying properties of the universe. Language is something we have made-up (collectively), and continue to make-up as we go along. The process isn’t rational. And the resulting language doesn’t follow algorithmic rules like algebra or computer programming does.

A lot of people think that writers are obsessed with rules of grammar. They also think that good writing requires an extensive vocabulary of obscure words. Similarly they assume that anyone who has ever had the job title of editor is perfect at spelling and is even more obsessed with grammar. Those are copyeditor skills, which is different.

Don’t get me wrong, understanding how language works and having a facility with words are important skills for a writer, but words aren’t like gears and pulleys and cogwheels, and writing isn’t like assembling a machine. Words aren’t even the fundamental tool of a writer.

It is true that I am fascinated by dictionaries and have quite a collection of them. But open up a good dictionary and skim down the page and you will notice that just about every word has multiple definitions. Words have meaning, yes, but they have lots of meanings, and not always terribly precise ones at that. For example, let’s take the word “bear,” and imagine for a moment that you were explaining our language to an alien. If you told this alien that the word refers to a large omnivorous mammal with thick fur and plantigrade feet, what would that alien make of these sentences:

  • The petitioner will bear the cost of the investigation.
  • My manager is a real bear.
  • Before accepting the offer, bear in mind the responsibilities that come with it.
  • And then the bear flashed his lights, and I knew I was going to get a ticket.

That’s only four of the six definitions of “bear” that are listed in one of my dictionaries. Now at least one of those uses is metaphorical, but the verb “bear” meaning to carry something is spelled and sounds exactly like the noun “bear” which refers to an animal. The only way you can know which meaning of the word is meant is to hear it in a sentence.

The fundamental unit of a story isn’t the word, it’s the sentence. Yes, to understand a sentence you need to know the various meanings of the words in the sentence, but not necessarily all of them. You can often understand a sentence which uses a word you never heard before. Lewis Carroll composed a poem, “Jabberwocky,” in which nearly every sentence contained at lease one nonsense word he made up for the purpose:

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

Nobody knew what galumphing meant when Carroll wrote the poem, but everyone who read or heard it at the time inferred that it meant to move or run in some manner, perhaps similar to a gallop or maybe more of a loud blundering through the woods. In any case, an image of the triumphant hero making haste toward home carrying the head of the defeated creature was conjured by the sentence with the nonsense word. Never mind that vorpal was also a word that Carroll made up. Most nerds know exactly what it is: a magically sharp sword, right?

Anyway, being a writer isn’t about making text pretty. Nor is it about mastering the rules of grammar to somehow hypnotize readers with the mystic powers of predicates, prepositions, and pronouns. It’s about telling a story. In my day job I may be telling the story of what problems a particular software product solves. In my fiction writing I may be telling the story of how a thief with a cursed artifact will save the world. And here on the blog I may be telling the story of why marginalized people try to find hints of themselves in cultural events. Humans tell stories–we construct narratives–to give things meaning.

You can’t tell a story if you’re obsessing over the proper placement of a comma (the rules of which are infinitely less restrictive than you think). You can’t tell a story if you’re arguing with yourself about which synonym for brown best describes the color of your protagonist’s eyes. You can’t tell a story if you’re writing, deleting, and re-writing the opening sentence of your tale, each time changing just one adjective. Neither can you tell a story if you’re beating yourself up about the fact that you haven’t been able to finish it when you want to. It’s as useful as crying over spilled milk.

Which is about as useful as arguing about so-called rules of grammar. The final test is whether a reader understands it, and whether they care enough to get to the end. If they do, you wrote correctly.

Now, bring me a coffee, pour yourself your favorite beverage, and let’s see what kind of tales we will tell!

Zoinks! Trying to break some verbal habits

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

I don’t remember when I first heard “duuuuuude!” As a word intended to communicate anything from, “Hello, friend!” to “I agree!” to “Don’t panic” to “I can’t believe you just said/did that! What were you thinking?” and a million things in-between. Before I looked up the linquistic history of the word, I had hazarded a guess that it was late in high school, which would put it roughly in the year 1978-79. And while that particular sense of the word seems to have arisen in several different American subcultures in the 50s and 60s, it didn’t really begin the move into pop culture until the early 80s, so it was more likely in college (which began as several years of attending community college part-time while working to save up for university, before three more years there) where I acquired the habit.

I know in the 90s I used the word with friends and acquaintances of both genders. One butch lesbian friend was very fond of using “Dude!” to mean, “You can’t be serious!” for instance. So even though I knew that the word originally meant (back in the 1800s) a foppish young man who dressed in overly-fashion-conscious clothes and affected a sophisticated manner, and then later had morphed to describe a man from the city visiting the western countryside who was unfamiliar with physical labor and the necessities of life on the range, I thought of it as a gender-neutral term.

But it’s not… Read More…

Plot speaks louder than words

Sometimes a story isn’t about what it says it’s about.

I’ve written before about readers who contacted me about one of my stories and believing that the opinions of some of my characters are also my opinions. They don’t understand that one can convincingly write a character who has a substantially different worldview than oneself. So just because characters say something, that doesn’t mean it is the author speaking to you.

Similarly, just because the narrator says something, no matter how authoritative the narrative voice of a story may be, that doesn’t necessarily reveal to you the beliefs of the writer. The writer may be intentionally ironic, for instance, having the characters and narrator say something which the action of the story directly contradicts.

More often, the writer isn’t trying to profess any profound beliefs, he or she is just telling you a story. Where the writer’s beliefs are revealed are in the consequences that befall characters for their actions. Which isn’t to say that stories are always intended to be fables. It’s just that when we are weaving a story, the action is going to be driven by what feels right to us, what feels like would be a reasonable outcome. And what feels real or right or reasonable is going to be determined by our fundamental beliefs.

Most writers don’t think about stories from the point of view or philosophy or morals. We have an idea about a situation, or there’s a question we’re pondering, or maybe we just think it would be interesting to put a pair of characters together and see what happens.

So, for instance, a writer might have the protagonist say something like: “It’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them” while discussing his or her enemies. But if the character subsequently slaughters each and every one of those enemies without mercy, and if the reward for doing this within the story is the hero being proclaimed a hero, and so forth, well, that story isn’t about learning to love your enemies. At best, it is a demonstation of one way someone might rationalize genocide, but it isn’t about learning to love.

Of course, a story isn’t just about what the writer thinks. A story is just a collection of words until an audience hears it or reads it. So even those readers who have been mistaken about what my beliefs were, or who concluded that I was sending a particular message which was never my intent, once I put the art out there, the meaning is no longer mine alone.

If story inspires a particular meaning or feeling for you, then that’s what the stroy means to you. And what the author meant shouldn’t be relevant to your enjoyment of the story.

But if you are curious about what the writer actually believes, don’t pull out lines of dialog or specific sentences. Look at the plot. What happens to characters as the results of their actions? What kind of actions lead to success or failure? And what is the tone the story takes with those actions? Sometimes a character does what everyone agrees isthe right thing and fails anyway. Does the tone of the tale imply the failure is an regrettable tragedy or or just desserts?

That’s where you get clues to the writer’s heart.

Fact isn’t meaning

Some years ago, while working on a collaborative science fiction project, one of the other people mentioned that they had read that chimpanzee DNA is more than 98% identical to human DNA. “It only takes that little 1% to make a huge difference!”

I had seen articles quote this figure as well, but since the human genome project was still underway at the time, I was a little skeptical that it was accurate. However, one of my friends showed me a reference to a paper in a peer-reviewed journal where the statistic came from, and a little research seemed to indicate that it was true. So I accepted it, occasionally quoted it myself, and didn’t think about it.

Until I read a book about the human genome project, which talked about that old statistical claim in particular, and explained exactly how it came about.

If complicated science theories or statistics make your head spin, don’t panic! I’m going to explain it in a way that will not cause you any distress.

Imagine that you have printed out the text of a pair of books that are roughly the same length. You have printed it out single-sided, double-spaced, and in comfortably-sized font. Now, you take a pair of scissors to the first book, and you start cutting each page up—you don’t cut them up randomly, you cut them so that you have several thousand little pieces of papers, each one of which has one and only one word on it.

Now, you sort them. You make a pile of all of the slips of paper that have the word “the” on it. You make another pile of all the slips that have the word “blue” on it, and so on, until you have a bunch of piles of the little slips of paper, each pile containing however many instances of a single word.

Pick the ten biggest piles, only, and discard the rest. Now count the number of slips of paper in each of your ten piles, and write down the number of times each word occurs in the book you cut up.

Now, go repeat the whole process on a second book, and when you’re done, compare the two lists. Calculate by what percentage each varies on each word, and then average that variation out.

When you’re done, you find that there is a 98% match between a Harry Potter book and Fifty Shades of Grey. “Look!” you declare, “They’re practically the same book!”

But you haven’t compared the two books, you’ve only counted words and compared counts of the most common words between the two books. If you perform this treatment on any books written in the same language, you’re going to find a match.

And I think everyone realizes, when I explain it this way, that what you’ve done does not measure how similar the books are.

Of course this makes you wonder what the scientists were thinking when they did something very similar to the DNA of humans and chimpanzees.

To be fair, the scientists who authored the original paper never claimed that humans and chimpanzees only varied from each other by 1 or 2 percent. They said that they found a similarity in the number and distribution of certain combinations of base pairs of the portions of the chromosomes compared of about 98%. They knew that they weren’t comparing the entire genome, because no one had mapped the entire thing for either species.

At the time, the methods we had for analyzing DNA were crude. We could separate chromosomes, we could pull out certain sequences and count those, but there was a lot we couldn’t do.

We also assumed that the long, repetitive bits at the end of each chromosome were junk, or filler, but new research is beginning to cast doubt on that.

Make no mistake, the more we study both species’ chromosomes, we keep finding a very high amount of similarity between us. Chimps and Bonobos both are clearly very closely related to us. But we aren’t “practically the same species.”

My point is, that 98% was a fact. It was even a true fact, but it was a very specific fact: when comparing certain portions out of the whole DNA. of each species, and when counting building blocks, without much regard to how those building blocks relate to each other, the number of those building blocks is about 98% the same in each species.

Before we can know what that fact means, we need to know a whole lot more facts and a much better understanding of the context.

Soup to nuts

One of the first times I ever heard the phrase, “soup to nuts” my incorrigible Great-grandpa I. tried to convince me it meant that crazy people would think dishwater was soup. None of the kids in my generation ever called Great-grandpa I. “great grandpa.” He insisted we call him “Shorty.” No matter how hard my mom and her siblings and cousins tried to get us to call him anything else, we all called him “Shorty.” ‘Cause he told us to.

When Great-grandma heard him tell me the wrong definition of “soup to nuts,” she explained it referred to a fancy banquet-style meal, where you would be served soup first, then a meat dish, then a fish, and so on, until dessert and finally nuts. Shorty interrupted at that point to say he still thought crazy people were involved somehow. Otherwise, why would you need such a big meal?

Read More…

One problem with prequels

“Prequels are really difficult,” Alan Dean Foster once said. The main reasons I recall him giving were that usually the readers who most wanted to read a sequel were fans of the original work. Therefore, they already knew the characters’ future, removing one source of dramatic tension. Also, they often had already imagined their own version of events, and whatever the author comes up with may not match up to their expectations.

Another reason is that the author often doesn’t know exactly what happened. So when we try to put the events into some sort of narrative that is satisfying to us, it may not actually add up to an interesting story.

This will prompt some people to ask, “But it’s your story! How can you not know the details?!”

Let me give an example from one of my current writing projects. At the moment it consists of two novels: one is a sequel to the another. In the first book, one of my protagonists is an apparently human, somewhat mysterious, fortune teller. One of the villains is the Zombie Lord. One of the mysteries surrounding the fortune teller is that she has some sort of past relationship with the Zombie Lord.

For plot purposes in the first book, the readers needed to know that some sort of friendly relationship had once existed, but there had been a falling out. So I’ve included only enough information to establish that before it becomes important. And no more.

At the time I was writing the first book, I knew more than the little bit I revealed, but it wasn’t a huge amount more. I didn’t need to know more. I knew how well they know each other, and how they feel about each other now, so I could write their interaction (and eventual combat) correctly, but that’s all I needed to know, so it’s all I’d figured out.

In the second book, their past—and their relationships to several more characters—is integral to the plot. So I have figured and filled in a few more details. Again, I’m figuring out more than will actually appear in the story, but there’s a lot I’m not worrying about.

One of the things I don’t know, for instance, is exactly what sequence of events led to them ceasing to be friends. Ultimately, it was because he became an evil overlord, of course, but was there a defining moment? An action he took where it became obvious that’s the path he was going down? Or was it a gradual thing?

All creative people do that sort of thing. For example, say you have this idea for a poem or a painting or a song about what it feels like to be a young person who decides to throw all your problems and cares away and just leave, start a new life on the other side of the country or something. So you create the work of art, and you do everything in your power to capture that feeling, and you might end up with something like this:

After writing it you spend the next forty years being asked by reporters, fans, and talk show hosts what exactly was the crime that set this whole thing off. For all of those forty years you keep coming up with variants on the answer that you don’t know, it didn’t matter for you in creating the piece. What was important was that feeling you were trying to evoke. He wanted his listeners to project themselves into the song and just experience that moment.

The other reason it doesn’t matter is because part of the point of art is to engage the audience. That song isn’t only about what Paul Simon was thinking when he wrote it. The song is also about what each and every listener who hears it finds within it. My meaning, when I hear it and sing along, is just as viable and true as the meaning he had when he wrote it. Your meaning when you hear it is just as viable and true, as well. His meaning when he performs it all these years later is no more, and no less, true than the meaning that someone who his never heard it before may find if they hear a recording tomorrow.

We leave things unsaid in stories because we should only include things that move the story along. We leave them unsaid because in our pursuit of telling the best version of the story we can, we can’t afford to let ourselves run down rabbit holes and lose the story. We leave them unsaid because the story isn’t real until it is heard or read and believed by an audience. We leave them unsaid because the audience can’t throw them self into the story unless we leave room for them.

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