Getting The Words Wrong

The Arts


‘What does he deserve for lighting the future on fire?’ asks a character in Game Of Thrones. The line bothered me. It’s not poke-you-in-the-eye bad grammar, just an awkward juxtaposition of words. It feels wrong. If I was pushed to define it, lighting something is the act of illuminating, setting is more aggressive while, say, ‘bored of’ instead of ‘bored with’ is just a change of composition that crops up now. Generally, Game of Thrones doesn’t fall into the ‘Yonder is the castle of my fadder’ category of historical dialogue – witness Diana Rigg’s delightfully sharp scenes in said series. But there’s a subtle change in language going on in the media at the moment.

This new awkwardness is far more noticeable on message boards, where language is routinely tortured into ugly shapes. Online comments are often written in haste and probably reflect spoken language quite accurately, but what appears to be happening is that habits of speech are passing into the written misuse of words. A fellow writer recently pointed out that ‘hone in on’ is appearing instead of ‘home in on’, along with ‘he can’t read nor write’.

Last month the Guardian used ‘hating on’ to mean hating, and perhaps we can date such linguistic strangulations back to the dreaded Alien box set describing it as a ‘quadrilogy’. I believe language is a living, malleable thing and should be stretched and altered, and casual malapropisms are easy to replace, but there must also be grace in language.

I’m now reading magazines that contain entire articles by writers incapable of expressing themselves with accuracy. One nameless writer in a national magazine seems to be filtering his sentences through Google Translate. I read his sentences trying to pinpoint actual mistakes and while I find none, the reading of his prose becomes a series of stumbles. Since when did a felicity with words cease to be a requirement of the job?

I have the same problem with US novels from the 19th century, finding Henry James, HP Lovecraft and Herman Melville all but unreadable for their use of parentheses and over-elaborate sentence structure. This may be because my mind is trained for English (although ‘Tristram Shandy’ still defeats me). It may simply be that they lie at the outer limit of my intellect.

I have a similar problem with many modern novels especially in the crime genre. The plots are engaging enough but it often feels as if the oven door was left open on the prose. Rereading GK Chesteron’s Father Brown stories this week reminded me of his glorious use of language (and his preposterous plots). Crime novels can be ameliorated by the joyful use of words, but there’s something about the genre that equates believability with ponderousness, and dourness with dullness. To which I say once again, Edmund Crispin. He’ll be cropping up shortly in our regular Invisible Ink feature.

6 comments on “Getting The Words Wrong”

  1. Christopher Roden says:

    Glad to read that you will be writing about Edmund Crispin, Chris.

  2. Mike Brough says:

    You stay the hell away from HPL, ya hear? (

    But, you’re right, we need razor-sharp-language and top-end-plots. Anything else is a waste of a too-short life.

    I’m off to read The Burning Man.

  3. Martin says:

    The “of” instead of have is the one that gets me as it is now becoming very prevalent, as “I would of done”. Gets right on my tits!

  4. Vivienne says:

    Having started it, I MADE myself finish Wings of a Dove, but I challenge anyone to say they understand some of
    James’s paragraphs. Nowadays I find it’s not just the poor writing but the lack of depth of stories and characters that disappoint. Recently finished Nevil Shute’s first book Marazan, ( another Invisible Ink man) which dashed along but was incredibly full and vivid.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    People who have read Henry James seem to agree that his writing is far too dense for most readers. Since I’m nowhere the top of “most” I have stayed away from Mr. James, but I loved Vanity Fair, Mill on the Floss, and War and Peace. (The only problem I have with that one is that it is so long.) Those writers all knew what the English language was intended for (Tolstoy’s translator in that example, of course). I parenthesize and use long multi clause sentences. It doesn’t increase the readability but it needn’t confuse the sense of what was written. We had to learn lists of idioms in French class so that we would remember the correct preposition to follow ‘avoir”, ‘pretendre’ and so on. Perhaps we ought to do the same for English class. It is bored with, confused about, tired of, and I’m sure we could make up whole sheets of these.
    I highly recommend Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See for extremely evocative writing. I can feel the place the blind girl walks through so that when the narrative voice shifts to a sighted person the seeing of things comes as a shock.

  6. Jan says:

    I once picked up a crime novel in which the,author had used the,word “Burdon” to describe the sound of a,taxi stopped but with the,engine running.
    Some,less than happy reader had written the word”twat” in the margin I think his opinion of the
    I just am happy to admit I didn’t know what the word meant. I can’t remember the novel but on some,level I can’t disagree with the comment….
    I like that quote I think I might have said setting the future,on fire. But I still like it

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