King's English

Posted by on October 26, 2009

© Tinka / Fotolia.comI’ve had an enlightening week reading Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I’ve avoided his books – and most of the resulting movies – all my reading/watching life, as …  well, I’m hellishly easy to scare (seriously, Ghostbusters scared me senseless). But his approach and his advice is straight-up and liberating rather than terrifying. What it did, though, was get me thinking about the difference between being at home in a language (as a first-language speaker) and being an immigrant, a visitor or, even, a spy (a non-native speaker).

King says: ‘Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule’. At first I thought – well, that’s alright if you’re English speaking, and if you’re writing prose. I guess what he is saying is that writing instinctively and honestly beats writing to be fancy. Writing: ‘Lend me your ear’ beats writing: ‘Advance me your stirrup, anvil and cochlea.’

But then I cast my mind back to those English teaching days – sitting in a class of high-school students in the neon-clad city at the end of a long day … all of the students keying words furiously into their pocket translators, flicking desperately through their chosen English dictionary answering questions such as: ‘Where are you going for Chinese New Year?’ with ‘Myself will roam primarily to the kin’. Poetic … but confusing.

At the end of this train of thesaurusean (I know that’s not a word!) thoughts I was  thinking: so, a thesaurus can be confusing for the non-native speaker and it can be a dissembling tool for native speakers (I promise dissembling came to mind before concealing),  so is a thesaurus only good for a crossword puzzler?

I tweeted Stephen King’s quote a few days ago, and found the responses from @green_knight most heartening:

@green_knight @MacDictionary I’ve found a thesaurus useful to chase down weird translations: how did he get from here to there, where there=exact opposite.

and
@green_knight @MacDictionary Sometimes I reach for a thesaurus to avoid five repetitions of a perfectly good word – or to avoid a rare one.

That put my mind at rest and made me once again pleased and proud to point to our ‘integrated free online thesaurus’ without recalling to mind nearly all of the dialogue from Everything is illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer whose main(ish) character speaks in a sort of parallel English constructed of synonyms and near-misses: ‘Forgive my speaking of English, Jonfen, as I’m not so premium with it.’

But that book is a subject for another wandering.

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Comments (6)
  • King’s book was definitely a good read, though I do disagree with his thesaurus rule. I’ve found that a thesaurus is often just the tool to find the right word. Sometimes a description needs a slightly different emotion than is indicated by the word that comes to mind, and in that case, a thesaurus can jog my memory to find just the right shade of meaning.

    Posted by Nathanael Green on 26th October, 2009
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    Posted by Tweets that mention King’s English -- Topsy.com on 26th October, 2009
  • That’s a good phrase ‘the right shade of meaning’ and I guess that is what native speakers get that non-native speakers struggle with – it’s tough to get the subtle differences in shades between words. It takes up a lot of teaching time trying to explain why some words can’t simply be substituted for others even though they have more or less the same meaning in a thesaurus. Ah, the subtleties of language …
    My next favourite quote from King: ‘the adverb is not our friend’ – that’s one I totally, wholeheartedly, completely and fully agree with! 🙂

    Posted by Laine Cole on 27th October, 2009
  • King’s On Writing was very good indeed. His personal story is quite inspiring and his advice is mostly practical and sensible. I don’t agree with his thesaurus rule, though, for much the same reasons that Nathanael mentions. Sometimes the right word stubbornly evades recollection, and needs to be poked out of hiding.

    Some of the best film adaptations of King’s work, incidentally, are not horror at all: Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption, Dolores Claiborne.

    Posted by Stan Carey on 29th October, 2009
  • On the other hand, in this book, King says, and underlines it quite strongly, that a writer, if he/she wants to achieve a success and create a good story, needs to read kilograms of books every month, or listen to them in a car or some portable devices, like iPod or something. So, as far as I disagree with the phrase of not looking into a thesaurus dictionary, which in my opinion may be a good way of avoiding repetitions, for example, I understand that he wants people to enrich their vocabulary and top their fluency in writing by, first of all, reading and getting to know the language in THIS way.

    Posted by Asia.pl on 1st November, 2009
  • Hi Asia.pl,
    Yes, I think King’s argument is: the more you read, the greater your vocabulary, the more naturally the right word will come out. In all my creative writing experience I don’t think I’ve ever found the right word in a thesaurus, I think this has something to do with subtlety (the ‘shades of meaning’ Nathanael talked about – although he used it in pretty much the opposite way!), but in other kinds of writing I have found a thesaurus pretty useful. My point is that if you are a language learner, the subtle shades of meaning are quite evasive and using a thesaurus can render you incomprehensible (rather than: difficult, complex, elaborate or contorted…).

    Posted by Laine Cole on 2nd November, 2009
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