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This is partially a writing advice post, and partially the beginnings of an answer to several questions I frequently receive about my work.

So what I want to talk about is word choice. One of (several) common problems I saw in slush, back when I was reading slush, was iffy word choices. That is, words that are dictionary-correct, but wrong for the context.

At least some folks will take issue with my having said that. “Ann, if the definition is correct then how can it be the wrong word?”

Obviously the wrongness of the choice doesn’t lie within the dictionary definition. But what a word means isn’t confined to its dictionary definitions.

The thing is, we mostly don’t learn our vocabularies by reading dictionaries. We learn words by hearing people talk, and by reading. When we were babies, we learned by hearing others around us talk, and watching what they did while they were talking, and by repeating things and discovering that particular words would elicit particular reactions. So one of the ways words mean things is by their associations–with real objects, with other words, with the circumstances in which we first heard or read those words, or the circumstances and context in which we often or nearly always hear those words. For most of the words we use on a daily basis, and quite a few others we use a bit less often, the most painstakingly accurate dictionary definitions are nothing more than schematics of our experience of their meaning. Indeed, the dictionary definitions are derived from those experiences and associations, not the other way around.

This is one of the reasons, by the way, that incautious use of a thesaurus can lead a writer astray. There aren’t actually any real synonyms–that is, you can’t just freely replace any instance of “purse” with “receptacle” even though the thesaurus lists them as synonyms.

Anyway. For most of us, we don’t experience words as distillations of their dictionary definitions, but as a set of associations. If I say “table” you’ve got some idea of what a table is, formed either by your personal experience with tables, or ideal cultural images of tables. Or, more likely, both. If I say “operating table” you get another very specific image, likely formed by movies or TV unless you work in the medical profession or have a lot of experience with healthcare.

Let’s imagine I’ve written a story with, oh, science fictional tables that do things. Like, oh, a Star Trek kind of replicator table. Or, really, it doesn’t matter. What matters is, in this scene there are several tables, but only one of them works. Now we write this sentence:

She put the tray of tools on the operating table.

Let’s even grant that context has been sufficiently established–yes, the reader understands that we’re in a table repair shop, and that all the other tables in the room do not, in fact, work. Still, that phrase, operating table is going to pull up associations that are entirely inappropriate for the scene. I’m not trying to associate my replicator tables with surgery (I might want that, on another occasion, but not this time).

The dictionary definition of “operating” will not help me here. I need another word. Or another set of actions. (Even “working table” might not be best–is it that the table works, or that it’s a table for working on? Dictionary definition says “absolutely correct.” Actually reading the sentence says “ambiguous meaning.” You can spend quite some time settling on the best sentence to describe this action. Personally, I think one ought to spend that time, and personally I aim to reduce that sort of ambiguity wherever I find it, or make sure that when it’s there, I mean it to be. Your work, though, your call.)

So, it’s extremely important to be aware of the associations words have, because your reader is going to be experiencing those as they read. And you can get a lot of mileage out of choosing the word with the right association. If our table story were, say, a horror story in which a character was going to be disassembled by a replicator table, then “She put the tools on the operating table” might be exactly the sentence I want, to set some associations ringing right away. Or maybe not, right? Maybe that would still be clumsy. The only way to know is to think about how it might or might not work for me, if I were the reader.

Which brings me to my next point. Our ideas about what words mean, and the associations words have for us, are all a product of our personal histories–our families, our families’ in-jokes and private conversational tics, where and how we went to school, the version of English that dominated where we grew up, the books we read, the shows or songs we’ve seen and heard, the kinds of things our friends talk about. There is no universal experience of a word. You can mostly (mostly) rely on really common words, that most of us use every day. Most people will have the same (or same enough) set of associations with the word “table.” Being aware of those common associations, paying attention to them and choosing words accordingly, will get you part of the way, keep you from the clumsiest of missteps.

But you want more than that. Right? The problem is, not all your readers will have the same set of associations.

The most obvious example of this is one I tried explaining to my daughter, years ago, when I was telling her that words are like plants–the word itself is leaves and flowers, but its roots under the soil are entangled with other roots, and you can’t pull on the flower without also tugging on those other plants. In the right circumstances, you can say one word and your listener will hear some of those others more or less faintly in the background. “In the right context,” I said, “if you say the word spice to a science fiction reader, they will instantly think of sandworms. ” She was dubious.

A while later, we were walking somewhere and were talking about water and rain, and walked past a bakery, they must have been making fruit pies, or cinnamon rolls, or something, because there was a delicious waft of cinnamon and cloves, and I said, “Ooh, I smell spice.” Without meaning it to happen, the memory of Dune came to my mind. And my daughter said, “Mom! That thing with the words, it just happened!”

Of course, she’d read Dune. If she hadn’t, she wouldn’t have had that same experience I’d just had. I could have said “Ooh, I smell spice!” to my mother-in-law, and (lovely mother-in-law though she is) she would have had no reaction, or only thought about food.

So, this is my point–the language we speak isn’t like a programming language, where definitions are set and meaning follows an absolutely logical sequence and there’s some perfectly logical way to decode the meaning of any word or sentence. (No one has actually died in the shower from not being able to exit the loop on the back of the shampoo bottle. Indeed, the joke is funny because it never has and never would happen, because human languages don’t work like computer languages.) The dictionary definitions of words are only the surface of what they mean–but what’s below that surface is different from person to person, even if some meanings are common to some groups of people.

As a writer, your work is to some extent made more difficult by this. But if you turn it around and look at it as a tool to be used, you can get some really cool effects from it. Just, not every reader is going to be in a position to experience the effect. But that’s all right, that’s just life. That’s how it is.

The writing advice here is, think very carefully about the resonances and associations of even common words, while you write. Be sure the echoes of your words are the ones you want. Always remembering, of course, that some readers won’t hear them at all or will hear different ones, but that can’t be helped.

The answer to the questions about my work? Well, if a dictionary-correct word isn’t producing the set of associations I want, I’m going to either try to manipulate the context so that it’s closer to what I want (by, say, using other words in immediately previous sentences to prime the association I’m after), or choose a different one. So if you’ve wondered why I chose one word and not another, that would be why.

8 Responses

    1. Ann Post author

      Hah, yes, I thought of mentioning that. I did the same to myself–I can’t see the word without doing a double-take now. You’re right, it’s the same effect, just very obvious because “ancillary” wasn’t in much use previously except in a few specialized areas.

  1. J
    Juliette Wade

    Ann, I feel exactly the same about “ancillary” at this point. I wanted to say that the way you argue your point above is backed up by psycholinguistics and the way it talks about word meanings. I wrote an article related to this for the editorial of Analog’s May issue this year, called “Not Just Semantics.” It’s possible that you or your readers might find it interesting. The main point is that word meanings are a concatenation of all the contexts in which a person has ever heard a word, and all are activates simultaneously when the person hears the word. Thus, words we read don’t transmit meaning to us, but evoke it, and what gets evoked will differ depending on the person. Great article.

  2. C
    Chris Suslowicz

    PSA: Subterranean have just announced the hardcover of Ancillary Sword, and the artwork is simply superb!

    (Yes, Of Course I’ve pre-ordered it.)

    1. Ann Post author

      Thank you, citizen! I have been anxiously waiting to be able to tell people about this, so glad to know it’s announced!!!

  3. n

    I used to write book copy and would see manuscripts in various stages of editing. One of my favorite examples of It Came from the Thesaurus was the line (I still remember this from 20 years ago!): “I had to shoot him! I never had any selection!”