Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Authors, choose language for your audience

Readers who pick a book to read for pleasure generally don't want to have to stop to look up words. Authors shouldn't want the readers to have to put the book down - we want them to be mesmerized with our stories - but if they find the hero gasconading and the heroine being ebullient about her accoutrements, the enchantment of the story is gone. 

Yes, those are all English words. To gasconade means to boast or brag. Ebullient means zestfully enthusiastic, and accoutrements means accessories.

We still do it. I write science fiction and often have the privilege to make words up, but I strive to keep the language accessible. There's a matter of pride, of course, but honestly, we're writers. No one doubts that we know a lot of words. We don't have to show them off.

To a certain extent it's different when writing non-fiction. Each area will have its own special words, and the writer needs to adapt to the trade. But, even then many seem to think their material seems more important if people can't understand it. From my point of view, what's the point of writing in the first place if the audience won't get it?

Regional words and expressions is another related matter. I fall into this trap all the time. I'm Swedish, learned British English in school, and write for a mostly American audience. Once I got over the spelling - or most of it - I still used words wrong. To me, a biscuit is a cookie or a cracker. Here it's a kind of bread you buy with chicken. To me, a jumper is a nice, thin, knit women's sweater. Here it is, well, not that. In my world, being homely means feeling like home. Here it means ugly.

The thing is, America is a big country. There are local expressions all over that means something else in another area of the country. And, then there are areas who take a word that means something completely different and use it in a wrong way. It might make perfect sense in that one area, but when used in a book, it will make people go, "Uh, what?"

I have an example. Bluetooth is a communications protocol named after a Scandinavian king. It's a form of radio communication. I have a bluetooth keyboard, mouse, studio headphones, and watch. My phone, iPad, and computers all use bluetooth to communicate with each other and with these devices.

I started to read a book a while ago where the author puzzled me by writing, "She hid the bluetooth in her hair."

Say what? She did what?

A few pages later it became clear that the writer thought bluetooth synonymous with a headset for a phone. I could have gotten over it if it were in three places or so in the book, but the heroine used her "bluetooth" at least one on almost every page.

After a while I couldn't stop seeing it. The rest of the book was good and well written, but I didn't finish it. When chatting with some other writers on Facebook, they told me that in one area somewhere midwest, people use the word bluetooth when referring to a headset for a phone.

It's really difficult to avoid this, because you think you're using the word right. If you see me doing it, I appreciate if you point it out.

On the note of big words, I just learned that penultimate is a bad thing; it means second to last. I always thought it was something good. Go figure. LOL!

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