It is the “dog days of summer” in Southern Ontario. And, of course, the moment I typed out that line I immediately had to go look up what the heck that actually means. I mean, do dogs specifically enjoy this kind of hot, humid weather? Do they mate more from mid-July to mid-August? Birth more? Die more? What exactly makes these days the dog’s days?
Well, it turns out it has to do with the appearance of Sirius. No, not the radio, but a star in the constellation Canis Major, which, as one can probably surmise, translates literally as the “great dog” constellation. Sirius’ moments of glory run from either July 14th to September 5th, or July 3rd to August 11th, depending on whether you want to believe the Old Farmer’s Almanac or Anglo-Saxon history.
My point… my point… (who needs a point?) Ah, right, my point! Expressions—more so, screwing them up—is what I wanted to talk about, and how, why, or should we use them in our writing. As in, I will literally lose my mind the next time someone corrects my use of “literally” to “figuratively.”
We all know that I don’t mean I will have an actual mental breakdown if somebody corrects me on this. By now we all know that using the term “literally” in the manner that I did up there is just a way to accentuate what is being said. A way to stress my, in this case, annoyance. And guess what? Merriam Webster agrees with me:
Definition of literally
- in a literal sense or manner : actually <took the remark literally> <was literally insane>
- in effect : virtually <will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice — Norman Cousins>
I do not know why this makes me feel vindicated, but it does.
You know what else drives me to distraction? This: “Don’t you mean that you couldn’t care less?”
Well, of course that’s what I mean. And of course the person who deigns to ask that question knows that’s what I mean. Everybody on this continent knows that’s what I mean. Not a single English-speaking person on this planet would hear that, sit back, and ponder how fewer cares I might have because I said that I could care less. We’ve all said it so many times the wrong way, and heard it so many times the wrong way, that by now we can hear it either way (couldn’t care less/could care less) and know they both mean the same thing.
I’m no better, by any means though. For all the mistakes I make myself, there are still expression whoopsies that drive me nuts. “Nip it in the butt” is one of them, although it’s probably the mental image I get of someone chasing somebody else around the room trying to bite a piece of their ass that does it. “For all” or “with all intensive purposes” is another one and I have no reason that annoys me but word snobbery.
However, I will fight to the death (No. Not. Literally!) for my right to say “your guyses” if it’s okay to say “y’all.” “Sorta, oughta,” and “coulda” is right up there, too and I “ain’t” about to change that.
I know, you’re asking why I’m even bringing this up. Well, as is the case with most of my blog posts these days, I was presented with a question on tumblr and that question proved inspiring. So, here we are.
Mx. Anon wanted to know my opinion on using slang and expressions in writing. The answer was brief, and to the point. “Only in character speech,” I wrote. However, I didn’t go into the detail of why and I’m afraid it might have come off as dismissive or that I was thumbing my nose at the practise. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. (Or… could it be farther from the truth… no. No, I guess it doesn’t work both ways on that particular one, does it?) When I said, “only in character speech,” I should have said, “I strongly recommend it in character speech, actually.”
See, as much as Kelly might want to strangle me every time I say that “I could care less,” it’s become part of what I do when I talk. I say, “ain’t,” and “’eh,” and apparently every once in a while, “aboot.” (The jury is still out on that one. I am not convinced.
I type, “I digress,” far too often in blog posts, and use terms like “no doubt” and “abso-fucking-lutely” too many times in both life and writing. It’s all part of my personal speech patterns, and I know where each and every one of them came from, and why I say it. I know that “’eh” instantly identifies me as Canadian, and “aboot” (if I do say it, which I don’t) does as well. I know that “ain’t” proves to everyone who hears it that I wasn’t raised in a high class boy’s school, and that “no doubt” tells everybody that I used to watch too much family-based comedies on television and had a special love for the snooty, dry humoured, often-sarcastic and stereotypical British character.
So while I don’t think slang or silly/misused/funny expressions belong in narration, I do believe they are idea for character speech. It’s a great way to define a character without having to list every single point of who they are and how they got there. For example, the right misspoken expression can show how much (how little) education the character has had, where they were raised, and what kind of people they hung around with as they developed. If a character says to me that he got off “scotch free” or that he was “conversating” I know he’s probably not going to be the guy up for the big office promotion.
Or hell, maybe he is and the author’s going to surprise the bejeezus out of me. I kind of hope so, actually.
Point being, if your character would say it, include it. Just be cautious about using it outside of actual character speech. The reader does, after all, want to believe that the author knows what they’re doing.
I hope that answers the question a little more completely than my tumblr post did. Thank you joining me this month and I hope you enjoyed. Before you leave though, I’d really love to hear what expressions you’ve heard along the way that were absolutely bastardized from their originals? Does your family have any weird but most-beloved ones? Do you yourself use any, either by choice or accidentally? Share in the comments section and let’s see if we can’t get each other chuckling, shall we?
All my love, and until next time,
AF Henley <3
Henley was born with a full-blown passion for run-on sentences, a zealous indulgence in all words descriptive, and the endearing tendency to overuse punctuation. Since the early years Henley has been an enthusiastic writer, from the first few I-love-my-dog stories to the current leap into erotica.
A self-professed Google genius, Henley lives for the hours spent digging through the Internet for ‘research purposes’ which, more often than not, lead seven thousand miles away from first intentions but bring Henley to new discoveries and ideas that, once seeded, tend to flourish.
Henley has been proudly working with LT3 since 2012, including Henley’s newest novel, ‘Wolf, en Garde” which hit the shelves on May 17, 2016. For more information please stop by for a visit at afhenley.com