A great many aspiring authors do. Never fear, however, for there are a few simple tests to determine if you are afflicted with this common and foolish pretension, and once the problem is recognized, my simple twelve-step program can help you recover while also
improving your working vocabulary. Soon, I'll have you properly using those words you're only embarrassing yourself by including now!
First, let's identify exactly what the problem is. False confidence in one's vocabulary (FCioV) is the assurance that one knows what a word or phrase means and how to use it, when -- quite bluntly -- one does not. This inflated notion is the primary cause of unintentional
malapropisms, eggcorns, and catachreses. If you suffer from this condition, it's very hard to identify and correct it without outside help. Luckily, today that help is here.
For an outsider -- henceforth called a 'reader' -- it is fairly easy to detect the afflicted. Readers don't automatically know what the writer intended, and therefore can only read what's on the page. This is one of the reasons an editor or beta reader is so important to the publishing process. However, if you do not have, or cannot afford or find a reader prior to publishing, this short list of questions can help you determine if you are a potential sufferer of FCioV.
When writing your novel do you:
- Use words or phrases that you've heard but never read?
- Use words or phrases that would never feature in your normal conversation or correspondence?
- Ignore the spell checker, confident that you are right and it is wrong?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, then the diagnosis is clear: you have FCioV. The good news, however, is that FCioV can be treated! In fact, it can be treated so easily and effectively that there are a large number of authors who have never been diagnosed because they self-medicated early and often.
How, you ask?
The most readily accessible medication is available over the counter, and is called a dictionary. Dictionaries come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, and you can find them in virtually all bookstores (except, possibly, the Christian ones), as well as being readily available -- for free -- online. I highly recommend the online brands, as they treat far more symptoms (i.e. words) than the paper versions.
Of course, merely owning a dictionary or using it occasionally is not enough on its own. That's why you need my revolutionary twelve-step process, a process I have made available for the first time today at the low low low price of FREE. It is clearly outlined below, and should be followed whenever you feel the urge to use a word or phrase that you've never used before, or have only used in conversation, or which your spell checker insists is wrong.
Step 1: Stop, and consider why you are using the word in question. Is it absolutely essential, or is there an alternative that works just as well and with which you are more familiar?
Step 2: If you are convinced that you absolutely must use this particular word, then I am afraid it is time to medicate: attempt to find the word in your dictionary.
Step 3: If you find the word in the dictionary, read the definition carefully. Do not forget to check the part of speech and usage notes. Are you using the word correctly? If so, it is safe to proceed. If not, you must accept that you have made an error: DO NOT USE THE WORD!
Step 4: If you cannot find the word in the dictionary, you must conclude either that the word does not exist, or that you have spelled it incorrectly. Do not, under any circumstances, assume that the dictionary is in error.
Step 5: Stop, and once again consider. Are you interested in a learning opportunity? If not, you must accept that you have made an error: DO NOT USE THE WORD.
Step 6: If you are interested in improving your vocabulary, you must try to learn how to spell the word correctly. There are several different methods which can be employed:
- If you are using an online dictionary, you can check to see if it suggests alternative words that are close in spelling to that which you entered.
- You can attempt to look up alternate yet plausible spellings for the word.
- You can access a search engine, and ask the question: 'how do you spell [the word]' (without either quotes or brackets)
- You can ask another knowledgeable human being.
Step 7: Having identified what you believe to be the correct spelling, once again attempt to find the word in the dictionary. This is crucial.
Do not assume that the word you've found is the one you need: confirm it.
Step 8: If you find the word in the dictionary, read the definition carefully. Do not forget to check the part of speech and usage notes. Are you using the word correctly? If so, it is safe to proceed. If not, you must accept that you have made an error: DO NOT USE THE WORD!
Step 9: If at this point you are still determined to use the word in question, but have not been able to verify its existence or usage, you can try to identify the word through a synonym. If, however, you can identify a synonym, it begs the question: why are you so intent on using a word you quite obviously do not actually know? This is generally one of the hardest steps for FCioV sufferers, as it forces them to acknowledge that most of the time the desire to persist has nothing to do with intellectual curiosity, and everything to do with pretension and ego. It is my advice, therefore, that patients should only proceed to step 10 after having made up their minds to use the synonym, not the original word. This ensures that the reason for persisting is out of a desire to know, not a desire to show off.
Step 10: Attempt to find the synonym in the dictionary. If you find it, read the definition carefully. Do not forget to check the part of speech and usage notes. Are you using the word correctly? If so, it is safe to proceed. If not, you must accept that it is time to STOP THIS FOOLISHNESS.
Step 11: Attempt to find the synonym in the thesaurus. If you find it, read through the possible alternatives in search of the original word.
Step 12: If you find your original word, you should now once again (and for a final time) look it up in the dictionary. Synonyms are often nuanced, and the word may still not mean exactly
what you thought it meant. Once you have done this, you can congratulate yourself on successfully adding the word to your vocabulary. If, on the other hand, you still cannot find your original word, you are still to be congratulated, for you have made great strides in conquering your FCioV. (You must also, however, promise yourself that you WILL NOT USE THE WORD.)A special note regarding phrases:
phrases can be misused much the same as individual words, but are often harder to investigate. In most cases, for instance, you cannot look them up in a dictionary. If, however, you want to use an idiom, or a song lyric, or just a phrase you may have heard in passing, you still need to verify that you heard it correctly. This is best done by following a much abbreviated version of the process: simply type the phrase into your search engine, and see what comes up. Further, search for the phrase in conjunction with additional terms like: 'origin of the phrase' or 'meaning of the phrase', to make sure that you not only heard it correctly, but understood it. Many writers will be astonished to learn that those idiomatic phrases they've been tossing around are not, in fact, the phrases they thought they were. (For example, it's 'bated breath' not 'baited breath', despite what you may have seen in the local newspaper.)TESTIMONIALS (Note: all testimonials are fake, although the stories of improper word usage are true.)
An Author: I don't know why, but I always thought a grammarian was a type of text. Always, even though I'd never seen it used. So when I wrote my novel, I had twelve young princesses carrying grammarians around -- not just once, but repeatedly! I was so embarrassed when my readers laughed at me, and well they should: imagine a six-year-old carrying a grown person around like a bundle of sticks! Now, thanks to Tae's simple program, I don't have to worry about looking like a fool because of my word choices.
A Different Author: I know all about homophones and homonyms, so I never thought I'd trip over one myself. Yet I did: I wrote a novel where my character repeatedly showed 'distain' for things. I never realized that the word I meant -- disdain -- was spelled with a 'd' and not a 't'. The two not only don't mean the same thing, they're not even the same part of speech! Today, I follow Tae's twelve-step program, and it keeps me from making that mistake again.
Yet Another Author: People who are corpulent are usually described as lazy, right? So that's what I thought it meant. It's how I described my main character. Despite being lazy, however, he was also dashing -- so I picked a young, trim, moderately attractive man to feature on my cover. Only later did I realize that the word I'd meant was indolent, and I'd described my athletic hero as being overweight. If I'd only stopped to check a dictionary, I'd never have made such a gaffe. Now, I follow Tae's program, and always
check a dictionary instead of assuming I know what I'm saying.This announcement paid for by Tae's afternoon, and a growing frustration with published stupidity. (Why am I paying good money to read ridiculous screw-ups?) Tune in next time for our program on Spelling Apathy, and learn what you can do to stop your writing from suffering this easy-to-address weakness.
Additional note: I tried to write this with a great degree of humor, so I hope I have't offended anyone. I do, however, believe what this is saying: i.e. a good dictionary is every writer's friend, and should be used often when venturing outside your everyday vocabulary.