August 22, 2011

In Pursuit of an Impossibly Perfect Word

Long before I ever considered sitting down and trying to write a book, I was always interested in words.  Whether as a student pounding out yet another essay, or as a new teacher trying to create assignments and tests, I fiddled, fiddled again, and then fiddled some more with wording.  Sometimes this messing around with words would take hours longer than it needed to, and believe me, as a new teacher that is time that you just don't have to waste.  In certain areas, I confess, I am a bit of a perfectionist, driving even myself crazy at times.  I used to be a lot worse than I am now, but when it comes to words... Let's just put it this way:  my thesaurus is all kinds of special to me.  Yes, I know that thesaurus abuse is a very real problem (Remember the episode of Friends where Joey AKA "a baby kangaroo" writes the adoption reference letter for Monica and Chandler?  If you don't, Google it, it'll make your day!).

I will spend so much time mulling over, and staring blankly at a not-quite-right word choice that it keeps me from getting real work done.  Like actually writing my story, for instance.  We've all felt it, that word dancing on the periphery of our consciousness, right on the tip of our brains (as if brains actually have tips?).  No amount of thesaurus searching (probing, exploring, hunting, spelunking???) or banging our heads on our keyboards yields the exact word we are thinking of.  Rather than allowing it to be a wall for me, I have started typing a word as a placeholder of sorts, then highlighting it in red to remind myself to come back later and mull over it some more, hopefully with more success.  This has worked really well for me, and often the word that was eluding me pops into my head on a later read through.  The point is, I am not settling on a less than perfect word.  If it isn't what I mean, I refuse to permanently leave some mediocre string of words just to fill space.  I refuse to cop out.

Speaking of copping out... I would like to define for you the root of a word which causes me great frustration, annoyance, irritation--you get the idea--in a lot of writing that I have been reading lately.  

impossible adj. 1 not possible; that cannot occur, exist, or be done (such a thing is impossible; it is impossible to alter them).  2 (loosely) not easy; not convenient; not easily believable. 3 colloq. (of a person or thing) outrageous, intolerable.  (Courtesy of The Concise Oxford Dictionary, Ninth Edition)
What am I getting at?  I detest the use of the adverb "impossibly" in place of an actually well-thought out alternative.  Sure, you could argue that the use of impossibly in the phrase "the gorgeous hunk's abs were impossibly chiseled", could fit into part 3 of the above definition.  You could even argue just how outrageous or unbelievable said abs are, meriting the use of the word impossibly (because gosh darn those abs couldn't possibly be so chiseled!).  I would argue that it is a complete cop out, lazy writing if you will.  Why think up a better description or a better word when impossibly is so much easier?

When I'm reading and this word rears its ugly head, it's as though it has been highlighted and bolded with arrows pointing at it in the middle of the page.  It positively leaps off the page and I find it horribly distracting.  The first time I recall being so offended by this turd of a word was when an Author-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named* used this vile adverb no less than once per page in her ridiculously long novel.  I kid you not.  It was so overused that I was forced to notice its hideous presence, and then I just couldn't get away from it.  I stopped short of actually tallying up the frequency of its usage in this book, but believe me I was tempted.  Since then, I have been spotting it more and more often in YA fiction and I find this disconcerting.  Has it become the next "like" or "you know" [insert other equally grating teen-ism] in young adult fiction? Yes, when writing for teens we want our character's dialogue and so on to be familiar to our target audience, but this shouldn't mean that our writing should be dumbed down or lazy.  The reason the word impossibly bothers me so much is because if something is "impossible", then it means it is not possible.  Therefore, it is not possible  for a character to have impossibly chiseled abs, or an impossibly gorgeous smile, or even impossibly wavy blonde locks. 

Not possible, so stop using the word already!

*This is not a reference to J. K. Rowling, who I think is an absolutely brilliant author.  It refers to another popular, but far less talented (in my opinion) author.

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