Writers need to love language, everything about language. If you don’t find grammar, usage, words, word play, even spelling fascinating, chances are you’re not doing as well at being a writer as you might like. When it gets right down to it, words and all aspects of language — in my case the English language, most specifically American English — are all we writers have got. We really don’t even have our innermost (if there really is such a thing as “innermost”) thoughts without language, without words.
Because without language, and specifically without words, we cannot have “thoughts,” can we? Oh, I know what many of you will say immediately. It goes something like this: “I’m an image oriented person. I do graphics. I see pictures in my head when I think, I don’t see or hear any mental language or words.” I congratulate you, because I’ve always wished my mind (left brain? right brain? middle brain?) would function more graphically. I think primarily in words, not
images. But whether you think mostly in language or in images, at some very fundamental level (I’m no neuroscientist here) you understand those images as language — and likewise, my language-oriented process turns those words into images.
So it’s a toss up as to which way you think, graphically or verbally. But the bottom line for writing is communication, and that, fundamentally, gets back to language and words. Even if your writing involves graphic novels (i.e., we called ’em comic books when I was a kid), you still add words and captions to the graphics. If you’re just slapping images onto a page or computer screen, you really aren’t writing and what you hope to communicate will not be clear — so you really aren’t “writing” in the sense I’m talking about.
Which brings up the obvious question: What AM I talking about here??
I hope you’ll come away from my rambling/ranting about words and language with this firmly in mind: Understanding and loving words is crucial if you want to succeed as a writer. That may be the most fundamental writing tip I have for you — at least today. Part of understanding and loving words is understanding the context of those words, not just “dictionary definitions,” but social and cultural context as well. I was reminded of this earlier today by a comment left on one of my other websites.
I had a couple of articles on another site I used to write for — one where I got much more politically involved than here but no longer own — related to the so-called “war on Christmas” that many people feel is happening, at least happening here in the U.S. Most folks who perceive this battle as being real have very strong religious beliefs which they translate into very definite ideas about certain words and the importance of those words. Chiefly, those words are “Jesus,” “Christ,” “Christmas,” “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Holidays,” and “X-mas.” There are other words that rally feelings in this supposed war, but those are the chief ones that come to mind right now.
Which, finally, brings me to the point of all this. I received a reply to one of those articles from someone who said this: “Didnâ€™t read all your replies, but I hope somebody knows enough about religious history to inform you that it ACTUALLY derives from Holly Day, not Holy day.”
I’ll be the first person to admit that I’ve been wrong before regarding many things, chiefly among them language and word usage, as well as generally writing skills, writing tips, etc. But, backed by the “Online Etymology Dictionary” and “Merriam-Webster’s Tenth Collegiate Dictionary,” I knew I was RIGHT on this one.
I’ll spare you the details, but if you look up “holly” in those two sources you’ll see that the Old English and Germanic roots of the word are NOT the same as “holy.” And the evidence in the sources on “holy” and “holy+day” are just what I’ve said they are.
What does that teach us about words and language that we, as writers, ought to learn? It teaches a whole bucket load of things, and perhaps I’ll get into some of them in a later article. But the most important point I think, for now anyway, is that we ought to love the details of language and of words. We ought to handle them very carefully, because they are tools we can use for good or for evil. (Yes, words are our tool; not technology, though technology is useful. But that, too, is for another day.)
And we all make mistakes, don’t we?