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fortressmax

on the mangling of words and the ethics of fiction

Posted on 2006.03.19 at 03:20
Am I a bad person for making up words?


I don't make them up out of thin air. But I'm writing a story in which there is a windowseat, and microsoft tells me there is no such word as "windowseat", and suggests "window seat", which looks and feels wrong to me, as does the alternative "window-seat." I don't like hyphens in general. To my mind a space or a hyphen puts a gap in the word that really shouldn't be there. It angers me and I defy Microsoft, and in so doing I also defy Merriam-Webster.

Given a strong argument and perhaps some strong liquor, it is conceivable that I could be persuaded to insert the demanded space in my windowseat. But I would not budge on "menfolk" if the gods themselves were to demand it. Hmm. Turns out, according to Merriam-Webster, menfolk is indeed a word, and there is no need for me to budge, so the gods can rest easy. Damn you microsoft for making me doubt myself!

On to a trickier one: Superstitiousness. Microsoft says there is no such word. Merriam Webster says there is no such word. I don't think I've ever heard anyone else use the word, and I actually dislike the word because it is rather cumbersome. I have struggled with this one for a long time. It has been suggested that I instead use "superstition." But the two words do not mean the same thing. Superstition is "a belief or practice resulting from ignorance," whereas superstitious is "of, relating to, or swayed by superstition" and so superstitiousness would be a the condition of being of, related to, or swayed by a belief or practice resulting from ignorance. It's not the same thing, dammit. The word may not be in the dictionary, but it's quite obvious what the word should be, so I'm gonna use it.

(It is an ugly word, though, with too many syllables, so if someone knows a good synonym, please share.)

Part of me believes that the spelling or existence of a word should be based not on what any dictionary says, but what the fictional narrator believes the dictionary says. Although if I ever habitually mistake "it's" for "its" please smack me, and if I ever habitually mistake "they're" or "their" for "there," please shoot me. (Mistaking "their" for "they're" is a lesser offense, in my opinion. At least those two are forms of the same word. There should certainly be some form of punishment attached, but probably something less drastic than shooting.)



Speaking of superstition (as I was before I got sidetracked) my next issue is being mean to my characters. Now, it's not really an ethical dilemma so much, because I believe it's pretty clearly not only my right, but my duty to be mean to my characters, if the story calls for it. And it usually does. I would say the biggest weakness of my own writing is that I'm not mean enough to my characters (which results in little conflict, little tension, little plot, little motivation for me to actually finish the damn story.) And I am rather proud of myself for just having been very mean to one of my characters, and not chickening out as I've done on at least one occasion in the past. (That was a crappy story anyway, so I don't care so much that I never finished it, but still I suck for having chickened out).

Anyway, I was mean to my character, and all depressed about it.

The difficulty here is that I believe my characters are real people, existing independently in an alternate universe, and I am actually discovering the story rather than creating it. The literal truth of this belief is of course highly dubious, but it is indispensible to me. If I don't believe they're real, I don't care about them, and if I don't care about them, why should the reader?

So actually it's not me being mean to my character. That would require me to be a sort of god in their universe, which would lead to a crappy story. I didn't make up what happened, it just occurred in my imagination, and it made more sense than any alternative, so I had to write it down. Could other, less terrible things have happened? Yes, in other alternate universes, but if I chose to write about those, I'd be sort of abandoning the poor girl who got the shaft in an independent reality that proceeds whether or not I write it down.

So, no real ethical dilemma. But I still feel crappy because that shit happened to my character. She got stuck with my worst nightmare, and she totally didn't deserve it.

Wonder how other writers feel about their characters...

Comments:


Katherine
marmal8 at 2006-03-19 16:41 (UTC) (Link)
Shakespeare made up words. Thomas Hardy made up words. I daresay other writers also made up words. Heck, if no one made up words, we wouldn't have any words. So make up words.

That said, I'm not sure of the need for the word "superstitiousness" but having not heard the entire sentence, I can't say for sure. Max's superstitiousness was ultimately his downfall sounds more correct than Max's superstition was ultimately his downfall if you're talking about Max's general habit of having superstitions rather than one particular superstition.

I agree with your general sense that the fictional narrator's language is the correct language to use, even if it isn't standard English. That's how we get books written in dialect.

Finally, Microsloth is not a spelling or grammar expert and should not be relied upon as such. The phosphorescent wankers who designed the program thought it would be funny if the grammar checker frequently suggested "there is" where I know it should be "there are." The people don't get out much, do they?

max
max1975 at 2006-03-19 20:27 (UTC) (Link)
Shakespeare made up words. Thomas Hardy made up words. I daresay other writers also made up words. Heck, if no one made up words, we wouldn't have any words. So make up words.

OK.

That said, I'm not sure of the need for the word "superstitiousness" but having not heard the entire sentence, I can't say for sure. Max's superstitiousness was ultimately his downfall sounds more correct than Max's superstition was ultimately his downfall if you're talking about Max's general habit of having superstitions rather than one particular superstition.

I agree. The full sentence: "Most of the people I knew here were fairly gentle and reasonable souls in spite of their not undeserved reputation for superstitiousness."

And yes, I know there's a double negative, but I maintain that "deserved" is not the same thing as "not undeserved."

I agree with your general sense that the fictional narrator's language is the correct language to use, even if it isn't standard English. That's how we get books written in dialect.

That points to some difficulty, though, because books written in dialect can be hard to read. There's an additional step of translating the text which puts that much more distance between the reader and the story.

Finally, Microsloth is not a spelling or grammar expert and should not be relied upon as such. The phosphorescent wankers who designed the program thought it would be funny if the grammar checker frequently suggested "there is" where I know it should be "there are." The people don't get out much, do they?

True, especially about the grammar. But the spellchecker is so fast and convenient, I have to use it, which leads to the inevitable conflicts.

jenn
anisodragnfly at 2006-03-20 20:06 (UTC) (Link)
"Most of the people I knew here were fairly gentle and reasonable souls in spite of their not undeserved reputation for superstitiousness."

i may have previously suggested this, but why not replace superstitiousness with "being superstitious"?

"Most of the people I knew here were fairly gentle and reasonable souls in spite of their not undeserved reputation for being superstitious."

That points to some difficulty, though, because books written in dialect can be hard to read. There's an additional step of translating the text which puts that much more distance between the reader and the story.

i hardly think the reader's going to angst much about windowseat.

But the spellchecker is so fast and convenient, I have to use it, which leads to the inevitable conflicts.

i suggest you view the spellchecker as a tool offering suggestions/reminders not commandments.
max
max1975 at 2006-03-20 20:52 (UTC) (Link)
"Most of the people I knew here were fairly gentle and reasonable souls in spite of their not undeserved reputation for being superstitious.

Maybe...

i hardly think the reader's going to angst much about windowseat.

aye, but 'tis a slip'ry slope; our fair tongue is delicately perched o'er the abyss.

i suggest you view the spellchecker as a tool offering suggestions/reminders not commandments.

I do, but I still like to get righteously angry about it sometimes.
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