Post 77

Author: Nola Published: over 2 years ago
Tags: copyediting, word choices, clarity, flow, meanings Category: Writing tips

Avoiding Literary Speed Bumps: Part 2 Multiple Meanings

Last year, I started a series on how to avoid literary speed bumps (i.e. those little glitches where a reader has to stop and work out what you mean). In Part 1, we looked at strategies for dealing with unfamiliar words. However, a familiar word can also cause confusion if it has more than one meaning. Consider the following.

  • Words with different shades of meaning. For example, the ‘little’ girl could be young, short, thin, or a combination of those qualities.

  • The same word and the same part of speech (e.g. a noun), but different meanings. ‘Race’ can refer to a person’s ethnic group or a sporting contest.

  • The same word, but different parts of speech and different meanings. ‘Butter’ can be a noun (‘Pass the butter.’), a verb (‘Would you like me to butter your toast?’) or an adjective (‘It’s hard to commit the perfect murder with a butter knife.’).

  • The same word, but different tenses and pronunciation. ‘Read’ can be present tense or past tense, depending on whether you pronounce it like ‘reed’ or ‘red’.

  • The same word, but different meanings depending on which syllable is stressed. For example, if you put the stress on the first syllable in ‘record’ (REC-ord), it would be a noun. Even then it has different meanings. It could be a vinyl disc that plays music (e.g. an Elton John record) or notes taken regarding an event (e.g. a written record of a meeting). If you put the stress on the second syllable (re-CORD), it’s a verb (e.g. ‘Marcie decided to record the seismic activity near the volcano.’).

With all of those different meanings, pronunciations and tenses, it’s easy to see how someone could be confused. Here are some tips that will help you to give your readers a smooth ride through your ‘multiple-meaning prose’.

1. Use context to cue the reader. If two characters are already talking about the type of music they like, readers are unlikely to think that Felicity’s Beatles ‘record’ is a written account of her Majorca holiday with the Fab Four. If it’s not that clear-cut, try adding a few words or a sentence to orient your reader.

2. Use a different word where possible. I once came across the sentence, ‘she plead with him’. The first time, I pronounced it like ‘pleed’ and thought there was a spelling mistake. Surely it should be ‘she pleads with him’. Then I realised that the author meant it as past tense (pronounced ‘pled’). The word was spelled correctly and used correctly, but it still tripped me up. This could have been avoided by using the more common ‘pleaded’ or another word altogether (e.g. begged, implored).

3. Use a more precise word or phrase where possible. Rather than saying Britney is a good girl, say that she’s kind or always does her homework.

4. Show rather than tell. Before simply changing a word here or there, consider whether clarity could be achieved through showing the reader what a character or setting is like. For example, rather than describing Barney as ‘huge’, say that he had to duck his head to go through the door. Then it will be obvious that you mean ‘tall’ rather than fat.

Do you have some examples of double meanings that could trip up a reader? I’ve love to hear from you.

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