Bring on the empty horses: handle synonyms with care

5232325286_09d118be15_zI have a friend who is French, and despite years of living in England, he uses a vocabulary that is sometimes unintentionally hilarious. He became a legend when he referred to a top-down convertible as a ‘topless’ car. (I am so looking forward to the SEO results of this first paragraph.)

I’m currently reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, and one of the narrative strands is in the voice of Alex, a Ukrainian who speaks very little English.

In an attempt to seem more educated and impress the hero, Alex is, as he himself would put it, ‘fatiguing his thesaurus’. In his account, people sitting around a dinner table or at the wheel of a car are ‘roosting’. If something is nice or good, it’s ‘premium’. If a character is standing still they are ‘reposed’; annoyed is ‘spleened’. Alex’s choices are often unintentionally ridiculous, and he has no idea of their appropriateness or connotation.

This creates various literary effects in the novel, which I’ll come back to if you’re curious. But actually, a lot of writers – across all types of fiction – choose words that make their action or characters unintentionally ludicrous or comic.

In times of trouble

This particularly seems to happen with dramatic moments.

In a fight, the heroes might be ‘whacking’ and ‘walloping’. A vulnerable character might get their hand ‘squashed’ under an attacker’s boot, or ‘bounce’ down the stairs. These words might be accurate, but they have a comic ring that ruins the atmosphere. In a scene where a much-loved character is found murdered, there will be ‘blood-splattered’ walls. (Try this instead from Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon: ‘Bloodstains shouted from the walls.’) Someone discovers the body and lets out a ‘squeal’ or a ‘squeak’ – which sounds jolly instead of appalled.

9780340839959Accuracy and gusto

This might happen for a number of reasons. Quite a few of my clients are merry souls even though they write dark stories. Or they’re trying to make a description dynamic, but in their vigour they pick a word that has gusto instead of menace. Or they’re trying to be accurate about what’s in their mind’s eye – after all, blood probably does splatter and spurt from a slashed artery. The trouble is, it sounds slapstick.

In prose, words suggest pictures and atmosphere just by their shape and sound. Those beginning with ‘s’ seem to be especially risky – I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen unfortunate appearances of squashed, spattered, squatted, squirmed and squelched.

Ear and eye

To control our text fully, we need to develop an ear for the mood suggested by a word, and for how it looks on the page. This is different from the way they might work if you were describing the scene to friends, who would have your personality and vocal delivery to disguise the odd inappropriate word. Similarly, you might be led astray if you read a lot of scripts instead of prose. Screenwriters don’t have to be so sensitive to these subtleties. They are presenting instructions for an experience that will come to life in other media.

But on the page, you are creating the actual experience. Your word choice is your tone, the personality behind the scene, the theme music, the lighting. We have to examine these qualities every word we use, both its sound and its shape. Look at that Thomas Harris line again, about a gore-splattered room: ‘Bloodstains shouted from the walls.’

In Everything Is Illuminated, the word choices appear oafishly comic, haphazard; mangled, even. As with all well-executed tomfooling, this belies a great deal of skill. Each odd word has been chosen by the author with great care, with an eye and ear for the grace of a sentence, for how jarring or surprising it might be, and to encourage us to think of what it might really mean. And this clumsiness also gives the narrator a great transparency; he is so unaware of other connotations his narrative has a quality of charm and honesty.

Choose synonyms with care.

Thanks for the thesaurus pic, Julie Jordan Scott

Do you have trouble picking the right synonym? Do you have any examples of writers whose descriptions hit the spot for you – or don’t? Let’s share in the comments!


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  1. #1 by Dee Connell on March 16, 2014 - 10:35 pm

    The joy of being a teacher is seeing this over and over again. I get sentences like “People who expend all day working do not have a good alimentation” or “Each professor at the university has to insert his endorsement in all his/her emails,” which sounds mildly inappropriate. 🙂 Thanks for the reminder to watch our words.

    Out of curiosity, do agree with Stephen King’s advice to go with the first word that comes to mind if it’s appropriate and colorful?

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 17, 2014 - 9:46 am

      Dee, those are a great giggle.

      As for Stephen King… hmm. In a draft I’d sling down the first word because I can come back and give it more consideration later. Sometimes it turns out to be right if it’s been torn instinctively from the gut. Just as often, it needs careful replacement. Mr King, who of course doesn’t need my advice, doesn’t seem (to me) to do as much careful editing as he should.

  2. #3 by Stationery Explorer on March 17, 2014 - 7:16 am

    Ooh. You see. You see?!

    “Blood shouted from the walls” is exactly the kind of thing I’d write in an attempt to avoid cliché, On the first couple of read throughs it would start to irritate; by the time I get to the final draft, I’ll change it because I think I’m trying too hard to ‘be a writer.’


    Or send tranquilisers.

  3. #6 by mgm75 on March 17, 2014 - 9:01 am

    Actually, I rather like “blood shouted from the walls” because it conveys a sense of the violence of the act.

    As for inappropriate use of synonyms, too much of it comes across rather like those Nigerian email scams we get “Salutations, My delight to make your acquaintance…”

    • #7 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 17, 2014 - 9:35 am

      Yes, I like it too! I liked it so much that I didn’t have to go and look it up. When I was originally reading the novel I was frozen by it, and went over and over it with pleasure. Normally I don’t remember quotes. That’s how much I liked it!

      Good example with the Nigerian scam – of course!

      • #8 by Stationery Explorer on March 17, 2014 - 10:06 am

        Sorry, MGM75 – I see how this works now. I intended to reply to you, but managed to post a new comment. See below (for what it’s worth).

  4. #9 by Stationery Explorer on March 17, 2014 - 9:26 am

    I like it too, I just didn’t explain my point well enough; it’s more of a lack of confidence within me which is borne of (too many?) writing rules. Left to my own devices, I’d probably come up with something like that and like it – years of advice etc has begun to erode my sense of what works and what doesn’t.

    PS: If you’re willing to help me escape my war-torn country, I can transfer in the sum of ONE HUNDRED BILLION US DOLLARS in respect of your humble bank account for your kind assistance.

    • #10 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 17, 2014 - 9:37 am

      Oh the scammers are coming out now… It’s you, isn’t it?

      Seriously, though, one recent client had been having a similar problem with advice overload. I went through her manuscript with suggestions, and she replied that my versions had actually been the way she’d first written the scenes, then she’d read some books and decided she’d done them wrong. I think there’s a stage where the advice swamps our instincts. Then after a while we emerge again, able to follow our gut reactions but also with a wiser idea of what we’re doing.

      • #11 by Stationery Explorer on March 17, 2014 - 9:55 am

        Looking forward to emerging from the chrysalis, albeit like some kind of raggedy old moth.

    • #12 by mgm75 on March 17, 2014 - 10:15 am

      Salutations my kind acquaintance. The offence is minimalised in the confines of my heart and I am desiring that we resume to converse amiably on this subject.

      I am disinclined on that matter to distribute with your personage my formal financial criteria. Such an individual amiably requesting such data can typically and formally expect the invitation to go forth and copulate with their own body 🙂

      • #13 by Stationery Explorer on March 17, 2014 - 10:20 am

        Fair enough, chief. Wanna buy some Canadian meds – discount prices!

  5. #14 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 17, 2014 - 1:11 pm

    Guys, I have to share this spam comment I just received. It must have had a certain kind of intelligence to have picked this post:

    ‘I am delight out of, result in I ran across what exactly I became having a look with regard to. You have ended my personal Five day time prolonged quest! Our god Many thanks person. Have got a pleasant time. L8rs’

  6. #15 by Stationery Explorer on March 17, 2014 - 1:20 pm

    Are you sure it wasn’t just an idiot like me trying to be funny?

  7. #17 by Stationery Explorer on March 17, 2014 - 1:49 pm

    Shh – I’m not allowed to open it until Saturday…

    • #18 by Stationery Explorer on March 17, 2014 - 3:52 pm

      (You can still whisper it though, in case it’s something nice).

      • #19 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 17, 2014 - 8:04 pm

        It’s a million pounds, of course, waiting for you in Nigeria.

        • #20 by Stationery Explorer on March 17, 2014 - 8:18 pm

          Aw, flip. I’m going to my Mum’s on Saturday.

        • #21 by mgm75 on March 18, 2014 - 11:47 pm

          I’m going to Nigeria on Saturday – apparently I have a billionaire woman out there waiting “to be good wife of me”. All I need to take with me is my £20,000 savings as an administration fee for the wedding. I’ll get it back of course after the wedding.

  8. #22 by DRMarvello on March 17, 2014 - 3:57 pm

    I often have trouble picking the right synonym. It used to bog down my writing, until I realized that I had several more passes at the manuscript to get it right. Now I try to pick the closest word I can and keep going. If I can’t even get close, I put a comment in square brackets that says what I’m trying to get across. Either way, I’m getting better at just forging ahead on the first draft.

    This practice has proven beneficial in a couple of ways: I can get my first draft done more quickly, and I have found that my editor’s mind does a better job of coming up with the word I need than my creative mind. The word I want will often just pop into my head during the revision pass. Trusting this will happen has taken the stress out of leaving behind a paragraph I know is broken during the first draft.

    • #23 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 17, 2014 - 8:07 pm

      Hello Daniel! Ah, the square bracket ruse. I use that for anything I haven’t decided but will need to give proper thought to, but don’t want to hold up my creative flow for. As you say, the editing/correcting mind is good at doing its job and finding the better word when it’s time.
      I also find I’m able to tolerate more roughness, the more I write. With The Mountains Novel, I’m even leaving some of my research until I’ve finished the first draft, because it won’t greatly affect what happens. But I used to hate to be so imprecise in a draft.

      • #24 by DRMarvello on March 18, 2014 - 12:27 am

        I can relate to your attitude regarding research. I’m learning to postpone anything that bogs down my drafting until a subsequent revision pass, and that includes most research. As you intimated, some research can’t be avoided because a plot point hinges on a proper understanding, but the assumptions I can verify later are square bracket fodder.

  9. #25 by Deb Atwood on March 17, 2014 - 7:11 pm

    Sounds like Everything Is Illuminated is a wonderful read. The language miscues you mentioned are fun.

    A related point–I would recommend that authors who have work translated into other languages have a native speaker friend read it before final approval. For instance, In Korean, To Kill a Mockingbird becomes To Kill a Parrot. And while, yes, both birds imitate sound, there is a world of difference in connotation between a mockingbird and a parrot–not to mention the thematic significance of the mockingbird in Harper Lee’s story.

    • #26 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 17, 2014 - 8:10 pm

      Hi Deb! Everything Is Illuminated is indeed a charming and audacious text. I’m not sure yet how much actual plot there will be, or if we will just meander through the world with observations, but it’s fun to tune into the character of Alex. After a few repetitions of his singular vocab, you find yourself adjusting. And he does use ‘spleened’, ‘premium’ and ‘roosting’ consistently.

      That’s too funny about the mocking bird. It reminds me of the legendary tale about the computer translation program that apparently made ‘out of sight, out of mind’ into ‘invisible idiot’.

  10. #27 by Jonathan Moore on March 23, 2014 - 11:53 am

    Hi Roz,

    I think there’s another issue here, about how language is used and corrupted in the vernacular. For example, I’m just writing a scene which involves moving a fallen tree and have a resistance bordering on fear of using the word log.

    It doesn’t help that I live with a woman who routinely corrupts everyday phrases into filth. When watching an advert for a brand of cat food, she’ll turn to me and say “You’re a wet food pouch”. Or when watching Hotel Inspector she tell me “You’re an unwashed shower hose.” This means I have a heightened antenna for double entendre (that phrase itself being a case in point) which diverts me away from perfectly innocent phrases, fearing that guffaws will ensue.

    Even without potty mouthed fiancees, I think there’s so many words with a double meaning that it’s becoming impossible to say anything innocent.

    Cheers for now,

    • #28 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 24, 2014 - 11:06 am

      Hi Jon! Oh what insights I now have into your mind and your world, and all from a post on synonyms. Please tell me you and the future Mrs Moore have written your own version of Cole Porter’s ‘You’re The Top’.
      And should I say congratulations?
      Always good to hear from you.

      • #29 by Jonathan Moore on March 27, 2014 - 12:57 pm

        Thanks, yes after 15 years of living in sin I finally agreed to be made an honest man. She doesn’t have an alternative to “You’re the top” but if you listen to Chris Evans’s show then you’ll know the “How do you like your eggs in the morning” song (Dean Martin I think), she likes to follow this up with “I like them covered in shit.” I think it’s a comment on the state of free range produce. I don’t mind, it keeps her happy.

        • #30 by Stationery Explorer on March 27, 2014 - 1:43 pm

          Firstly, I must say this has prompted a chortle or two; secondly, although this joke is way past its sell-by date, my other half always answers “unfertilised” when asked the same question.

          Thirdly, Mr Moore, this is a genuine question rather than an attempt to make myself look smart (or anyone else otherwise), and hopefully Mrs Morris will be able to shed some light here too, but I have noticed of late that many people write another s after the apostrophe at the end of a word ending in s. I was taught this is unnecessary (Chris’ rules now apply). In an age where everything is being shortened, I find it (like most things) confusing that this seems to be the opposite.

          Did I miss a meeting? Or is it optional? It was quite a while ago that I was at school.

          Yes, Roz. There are, once again, too many esses!

          • #31 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 27, 2014 - 8:43 pm

            Stand aside, folks. I have had to drill this point in house style books throughout the magazine world.
            This is a misconception that stems from making plurals and then making them possessive. If the plural is made with ‘s’, you don’t need an extra ‘s’.
            So: cats’ eyes (the optional shorter version of cats’s eyes).
            If we make princess possessive, it’s princess’s. Not princess’. No option. Why? Because you can only remove an s that has been added to make a plural. Otherwise it’s not the same word. But you could have princesses’.
            So if we make Chris possessive, it’s Chris’s. We need the extra ‘s’.
            If we make Chris plural, just for the fun of it, we get Chrises, probably, (or crises).

            • #32 by Jonathan Moore on March 27, 2014 - 8:55 pm

              In danger of making the column too thin to contain words here, but thank you for the clarification. I normally just put s’ no matter what (including in my WIP which feature the word princess’ quite a bit). The exception (which I was surprised I’d made) came from initially just writing Chris Evans and then adding ‘s show when I read over the comment again before posting. I’m sure I remember being taught in school that either was fine and choosing the one with less eses because it looked neater. I will amend my ways to what I originally thought was a mistake. Ta!

            • #33 by Stationery Explorer on March 28, 2014 - 12:20 am

              Gawd. I wish I’d paid more attention when I wasn’t being taught this. Probably.

  11. #34 by Stationery Explorer on March 28, 2014 - 7:31 am

    I can’t reply to the actual thread as we seem to have run out of room, but thanks Roz; in the cold light of day and without the benefit of my good friend Rioja, you have clarified the s situation perfectly.

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