Spoilers for Hollow Knight (computer game).
Clarity in writing flows from choosing the correct word. To paraphrase both Antoine de Saint-Expuréy and Josef Pieper, you will know that you have the correct word when no other word fits its place better.
In addition to knowing what tone your story has and how your characters should sound, a writer needs to know what words mean. This might seem obvious, but a lot of people who assume they know what words mean do not, or they know what a word means in a casual sense but then employ it in a formal context which causes the reader to reach for a different meaning or nuance before the intended one. This is often jarring and at its worst creates confusion, wailing, and gnashing of teeth, such as in this fine book:
This is The Wicked Bible, a printing of the King James Version which cost the printers (Robert Baker and Martin Lucas) their licence and fortune because of a simple error. Let us turn now to Exodus, chapter 20 to find out why.
Yes, that says, ‘Thou shalt commit adultery’. There should be a not in there somewhere – anywhere, really – but it is easy to see how a simple mistake completely transformed the meaning of the sentence. Of course, most people were clever enough to work out what the sentence should have said, but that is not really the point. When words are missing from sentences, or when the wrong words are used in a sentence, the point of the sentence is impaired and the reader is affected. In the context of fiction, this means the fragile illusion of the story’s world is damaged.
One example of this can seen in Hollow Knight, a metroidvania game by Team Cherry which I encourage you to play if you have not already done so. Hollow Knight tells its story in a very different way from something like Game of Thrones: rather than following the course of an interwoven narrative, the story has to be pieced together from clues in the game world, the occasional bit of NPC monologue, and even musical motifs. There are a few plot holes, but nothing that cannot be reasoned away somehow. However, on two occasions, the incredible atmosphere was swept away because, at a critical, dramatic moment, the writers had used the word ‘lay’ incorrectly.
I will get into the art and/or science of using words correctly later, because it is an idea which
makes a lot of people very angry often sparks a great deal of lively debate and so it will take a lot of time to explain both sides fairly. For the purposes of this post, however, what is important is that a language as it is spoken differs from a language as it is written, and spoken language as portrayed in writing is different again, as is written language portrayed in writing.
Generally speaking, written language is less flexible than spoken language and has a predisposition towards formality, which is why the first half of this sentence does not read, ‘So, when you write it’s, like, not as, stretchy as when you speak’. That said, blogs are an obvious demonstration of how slight this predisposition can be.
The verb to lay is a transitive verb without an intransitive sense. That is, if I want to lay, I have to lay something. I might lay myself down, I might lay the table, lay a hedge, or, if I am particularly limber and/or a hen, I might lay an egg. The past tense of lay is laid but people often confuse to lay with the past tense of the intransitive verb, to lie which is also lay. I lie is fine, as is I lie down which includes an adverb (down) for emphasis. ‘I want to lie down,’ is a fine sentiment to express at the end of a tiring day, and ‘I lay down,’ is a fine answer to ‘What did you do at the end of that tiring day? ‘However, ‘I just wanna lay down,’ is wrong, no matter how many songs claim otherwise, unless the next line is, ‘this heavy stack of books’ or similar. The alternative is anatomically impossible and would probably chafe most uncomfortably. To hide from the authorities is to lie low: to overthrow the authorities is to lay them low. Describing Walter White’s flight from the police as laying low is precisely the opposite of what is happening. If anyone is being laid low, it is he.
It is, of course, true that people say things that are grammatically “wrong” all the time, and you will not need to look very hard to find errors in this blog, but in Hollow Knight, as I was exploring the weird and wonderful story, I came across a sign, a runic mark which, based on previous signs, I expected to deliver a cryptic morsel of information in stylized, formal English, accompanied by an eerie whispering.
Here ends the Pilgrim’s Way.
Hallownest’s heart lays open before you.
Proceed onward to share in its glory.
And that was it. All I could think about was that middle line. ‘”Lays open”? Lays what open? Oh, you mean lies open’.
In the space of a second I had been jolted out of the story and back into reality. No longer was I thinking about the sad history of Hallownest and what secrets might lurk in the shattered remnants of its civilization lying before me. Instead, I wanted to know the going rate for proofreaders and how something so elementary could slip through the net. Mistakes are inevitable in writing, but I object to paying for mistakes. If I have bought a game to enjoy its story, the mistakes which get in the way of enjoying that story detract from the narrative and also make me resent parting with money.
Now, of course I could tell what the sentence meant, but like finding apostrophes or commas where they do not belong, an incorrectly conjugated verb or confused word creates a mess of the sentence and can force a reader to stop mid-clause and start again.
Getting the words just right is important. A character can lie in wait, lie and wait, or lie in ambush. A character can also lay an ambush much as one can lay a trap, but one cannot lay in ambush just as one cannot lie a trap, no matter how many strategy games try to convince one otherwise. Incidentally, the writing in strategy games, from which some of the clangers above have been taken (looking at you, Total War), can often be particularly bad. In some, it is so bad that I suspect there are no professional writers on staff, and the bizarre, pseudo-English utterances which come into being as a result make me want to chew on my keyboard. I love strategy games, not that I am any good at them, but frequently have to play with the volume down to block out the infuriating nonsense masquerading as intelligible English.
The lie/lay confusion is easily avoided. A writer could, of course, continue to use phrases like ‘I’m gonna lay down’ when writing for a character for whom such a phrase would be appropriate, but that is a very specific mode of speech. All parts of speech are at risk from this sort of mistake (affect/effect, bare/bear etc.) but verbs have so many forms and so they are the ones most often overlooked in media of all kinds because we are so used to the imprecision of speech.
‘Hey, Jane, is it “sang” or “sung”?’
‘All right. “And then he sung to her…”‘
Other words can be more tricky. People often use emulate as a technical/posh word for mimic or copy but at its core, it means, ‘to imitate with the intention of surpassing’. If I were to write a sonnet, I might be imitating Shakespeare, but I would need rather more confidence in my writing skills than I have to consider emulating him.
Then there are words like decimate. Depending upon the dictionary or blog in question, it can mean, ‘to reduce by one tenth’, ‘to reduce to one tenth’ or ‘to tithe’ and people throw around phrases like ‘etymological fallacy’ and generally fail to answer the question. Generally speaking, its modern meaning appears to be the result of confusion with the word devastate because they are both used to mean ‘to destroy completely or nearly completely’. The Oxford English Dictionary, to which I regularly refer in order to justify my own brand of pedantry, suggests that the modern meaning in Standard British English is ‘to reduce to one tenth’ but I have never seen this, and the next time you see it used, I am almost certain that it will be used to refer either to the historical sense, or something which clearly has less than one tenth, if anything, remaining, or even to a generic sense of defeat. The lesson here is this: even our intellectual heroes can say stupid things sometimes.
So which is correct? Consider the following exchange:
Commodore: Sir, the taskforce has a report: we have decimated the rebels.
Admiral: That is disappointing. Captain Jennings had better have a good reason.
Assuming that the rebels are not forming part of a tax (the best form of defence), is the Admiral disappointed because the rebels have been wiped out when he had hoped they would surrender, or is he disappointed because after using up most of his ammunition, Captain Jennings has only made a small dent in the uprising? Or is it that he would have been happy with any amount of death and destruction, but having precisely 10% of the forces remaining, as the OED definition requires, has laid waste to his sense of self-esteem?
Context can sometimes clear up this sort of thing, but not always: I can recall several times in the Wheel of Time series when a word with an ambiguous meaning was used in a sentence and the context did not clarify it. A writer may have a clear idea about what any given word means when he uses it, but the audience will not always be able to anticipate what that is. I would suggest that a writer avoid particularly controverted words like decimate and/or ambiguous words like emulate* unless there is a way to make it clear precisely what is meant before deploying them. There is usually a better word available, however: do not decimate the rebels; annihilate them, obliterate them, purge them and eliminate them! Or otherwise, wound them, unnerve them, deal them a crushing blow or a glancing one, clash with them and rout them and put them to flight. Keating was wrong: language was not invented only to woo women, but also to shame those vanquished by the heroes and villains of song and story. No need to emulate those who decimate.
In summary, use the right word for the job, do not confuse words, and do not use confusing words: the best characters in the canon cannot save an author from the derailing effects of errors. Next time, I will be saying stupid things about grammar.
*Naturally, this is less ambiguous in the context of console emulators. Context is never king, but it is usually key.