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When it comes to sentence structure and grammar, I’m often out of my depth. I tend to use too many commas, I hate semi-colons, and in my pre-marital days, I often ended a “Goodnight” sentence with a proposition.

 

Despite my lack of grammatical skills, I’m not too bad when it comes to spotting misconceptions about the meaning/use of certain words or phrases. Literary boo-boos if you will.

 

I don’t mean the ones where writers confuse their ‘there’s with their ‘they’re’s [and you can bet I checked that line a half dozen times]. I’m talking about the deliberately chosen, but factually incorrect, type of boo-boo.

 

Fire an arrow? Only if it's committed a sackable offence

When I did archery back in the seventies, the first thing the instructor told me – aside from saying that I was holding the bow back to front – was that you don’t ‘fire’ an arrow (not even a fire-arrow), you loose it, or shoot it.

Decimated – it’s not as bad as you think

If an attacking force is decimated, that doesn’t mean that most of them are killed, far from it.

 

The term comes from Roman times, when the punishment for a unit which fled the battlefield was decimation. The unfortunate soldiers drew straws, after which the one in ten (even more unfortunate) soldiers who’d drawn the shortest straws were stoned to death by their comrades, as a warning for anyone else in the army feeling less than courageous.
Smelly blood? Only if someone’s been drinking

Okay, so this as a misconception, rather than a mis-use, but I think it's worth noting that, aside from vampires and werewolves, who apparently have more sensitive nostrils than us mere mortals, people can’t smell blood. I learned this from Lew Preschel, a writer friend and retired doctor with many years of E.R. experience, though he did tell me the exception was when the patient had been drinking alcohol, in which case the stench was hard to ignore.

Cockney rhyming slang - I don't Adam and Eve it

I was born in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, in the north east of England, so I can’t claim any natural-born expertise here, but isn’t the whole point of using Cockney-rhyming slang to make it hard for eavesdroppers to understand what's being said?

Assuming that’s correct, having supposedly authentic Cockney characters say things like ‘plates of meat’ [feet], and ‘apples and pears’ [stairs] makes no sense. Wouldn’t they just say ‘plates’ and ‘apples’?

 

Vikings – a mythical race with illogical headgear (who may have invented cupholders)

Did you know that Vikings never existed. 'Viking' isn’t even a name, it’s a verb. It was something the Danes did when they weren’t trading (admittedly they did a heck of a lot of it).

 

While we’re on the subject, there’s no evidence to support the idea that the Danes had horns on their helmets either, which is probably just as well, since they wouldn’t be a smart thing to wear in a fight – the helmet would get knocked off too easily.

So why do we have this image of Vikings sorry, Danes, with horned helmets?

I have a theory about this.

We know they drank out of horns. Is it possible that, in addition to discovering America, they also invented the world’s first cup-holders? Of course, they’d have to take them off their helmets before going into a proper battle, but most of the time they faced little opposition, so they may well have taken their cups along in case they wanted to stop for a quick drink on the way back to the longboat.


Of course, I could be wrong.

 


How about you? What misused words or general misconceptions have you come across?


Editors note:  As of 12:35pm, we've had 72 comments and nobody's disagreed with my Viking Danish cup-holder theory.  Perhaps there's something to it after all :)


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Comments

( 80 comments — Leave a comment )
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clarionj
Aug. 19th, 2009 09:45 am (UTC)
Agree with the prepositional endings. Even the honored and somewhat rigid Chicago Manual of Style says better to end with a preposition than create cumbersome phrasing.

I didn't realize discomfit had that root; I'd always associated it with discomfort. So, it's a tad more drastic.
(no subject) - jongibbs - Aug. 19th, 2009 12:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
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karen_w_newton
Aug. 19th, 2009 08:22 am (UTC)
The biggest one is "begs the question" which has now comes to be used routinely for "asks the question." In fact, "begs the question" is more correctly translated as "ignores the question," as it means that the speaker is relying on a conclusion that is not yet established in fact. The best illustration I heard was a prosecutor who told a jury that they should not believe the defendant, because a murderer is not a reliable witness. This, of course, begs the question of his guilt.

On the decimation thing, I always assumed the centurions would rig the draw to control who got the short straws. I guess I'm just cynical.
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chant_1
Aug. 19th, 2009 08:24 am (UTC)
Great post, Jon, and I learned a few things - including about your premarital dating habits... ; )

But I swear to you, I can smell blood - and I am neither a vampire nor a werewolf! I wish I couldn't...but there it is.
jongibbs
Aug. 19th, 2009 11:43 am (UTC)
I always thought it had a copper smell, but Lew's had way more experience with blood, so I defer to his experience.

I wonder if the smell is something else. Let's face it, there's more than just blood in a human or animal.

Could that be it?
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marshallpayne1
Aug. 19th, 2009 08:38 am (UTC)
As to my first comment below, I believe you. I've just never known it to smell due to my lack of olfactory association. I guess I don't get out enough. ;-)
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marshallpayne1
Aug. 19th, 2009 08:34 am (UTC)
Great post, Jon!

Yes, I've always wonder about the "smelly blood" thing as I've never known it to smell.

And Laird is right about ending a sentence with a preposition losing popularity, especially in ficton. Correctly it would be, "It was a gun with which she killed him." But "It was a gun she killed him with" is preferable. Why? It sounds more like murder! :D

I'm sure I'll think of more throughout the day, but off the top of my head I dislike the word "literally" for "figuratively." If someone was so shocked they "literally" hit the ceiling," then I better see the pate of someone's damned head connecting with a rafter, joist or beam. These words are antonyms and can be used metaphorically, I guess, but I see it used wrongly a lot where the writer didn't appear to stop and think.
theladywolf
Aug. 19th, 2009 08:38 am (UTC)
AAARRRRGGGGHHHH, that is actually the one that drives me maddest the mostest. I want to literally kill people who misuse literally for figuratively, or at the very least explain to them how they've done wrong.:)
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theladywolf
Aug. 19th, 2009 08:36 am (UTC)
Ah, the word decimate. One of my favourite misused words, or so I thought. I used to enjoy hearing it, particularly in rap songs (raps) when someone would threaten to decimate someone and I'd wonder which one tenth of them they would kill. (Apparently the "they" construction when referring back to a gender neutral person earlier in the sentence is also now quite legit, just thought I'd mention.) But then I read an article in "The Guardian" which misused the word "decimate," and I thought, "how unlikely," so I researched it, and apparently decimate has officially passed into popular usage and the old meaning of it is only historical. Sad, but there you go.


Oh, and I'm pretty certain I can smell blood.We once came across an accident where a sheep had been badly injured by a car. The poor thing had lost loads of blood and there was a most peculiar heavy smell in the air. As I am familiar with the smell of sheep and shit, I presume it was blood I could smell.
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black_faery
Aug. 19th, 2009 09:02 am (UTC)
The smelling blood thing is interesting, as I have no sense of smell (at all), so I am taking other people's word for it when I write and describe smells in scenes. In a room where several people have died, after drinking alcohol, do you think there would be a smell in the air from that at all?

I get annoyed at how many people in stories can conveniently run for up to half an hour and simply be a little out of breath. I only know one person who can manage that. Most people, if they don't specifically train for it - five minutes, tops. Running for more than two minutes will absolutely kill me, and I'm not overweight or asthmatic - just pretty sedentary. So unless it's been established that the character goes out running every evening, or some other reason...hell, they'll be a lot more than a little out of breath. /rant.
jongibbs
Aug. 19th, 2009 11:59 am (UTC)
Yeah, and the ones who take a bullet in the arm or leg which bleeds a lot, but has little more effect on mobility than a wasp sting :)
bogwitch64
Aug. 19th, 2009 09:08 am (UTC)
Hello. A LOT of people use it inappropriately. It's a distinctly 'earth' word brought into use because of the telephone. If there is no telephone in a fantasy world, there shouldn't be a 'hello' either. The greeting was 'hullo' or 'halloo' but not 'hello' until Thomas Edison came up with it for use as a telephone greeting. Alexander Graham Bell wanted 'ahoy,' but 'hello' won out as the official greeting by telephone operators so that telephoners would know she was ready to connect the line. (And if you're The Simpsons savvy, notice that Mr. Burns uses "ahoy-hoy" when he answers the phone. A shout out to Bell.)
Gads there are TONS of such misused words that get by without most never noticing. Being somewhat of a stickler for etymology, they rarely get by me without causing at least a grimace. :)
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clarionj
Aug. 19th, 2009 09:39 am (UTC)
The first two words that came to mind for me were "hysterical" and "anxious."

Ever since I learned that "hysterical" came from "in the womb" and was first used to describe female dysfunctional behavior, attributed to problems "in the womb," I get images of a uterus tangled in fallopian tubes if someone says something's hysterical.

And since anxious refers to anxiety, with hope, we're not anxious to read someone's new book; we're eager.

That said, I accept the transition the words have gone through. It happens with living language.

Thanks for your insights. I didn't know any of those. And blood HAS to have a smell. What's that smell we all seem to know? Is it something else that comes out, what heals the wound? Did we make all this up having read so much gore? What about the copper in blood? We can't smell that? Grrr... I have to research this more :)

P.S. Sorry for the semicolon use above. I love them passionately ;)
jongibbs
Aug. 19th, 2009 12:03 pm (UTC)
'...we're not anxious to read someone's new book; we're eager.' Hah, you say that now, but wait till I get published, then we'll see :)

(no subject) - clarionj - Aug. 19th, 2009 01:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
kmarkhoover
Aug. 19th, 2009 09:55 am (UTC)
"Quantum" is one that really irks me. Must be the physicist in me, I guess. But I can't stand the phrase "quantum leap." I keep wanting to say, "Um, that's not as impressive as you think."

Another one that bugbears me is "penultimate." Again, I have to watch my tongue because I want to say, "Um, do you REALLY like bragging about coming in next to last?"
temporus
Aug. 19th, 2009 11:09 am (UTC)
Penultimate is one that sets off my trigger too. People so frequently seem to use it as if to mean: even MORE Ultimate.
(no subject) - jongibbs - Aug. 19th, 2009 12:06 pm (UTC) - Expand
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j_cheney
Aug. 19th, 2009 11:01 am (UTC)
Prodigal.
jongibbs
Aug. 19th, 2009 12:07 pm (UTC)
I know the Prodigal son story, but what does it actually mean?
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amy34
Aug. 19th, 2009 11:34 am (UTC)
Interesting! I had always thought blood smelled a little bit metallic--but I don't really know. I've never been around a large quantity of blood (thankfully).
jongibbs
Aug. 19th, 2009 12:12 pm (UTC)
'...I had always thought blood smelled a little bit metallic...'

Me too, but I confess, on the rare occasions when I've found myself in the vicinity of someone covered in blood, I didn't spend too much time thinking about the smell.

Lew Preschel's a stand up guy, so I trust his judgement. On the other hand, there seems to be plenty of disagreement. Perhaps I should put up a disclaimer :)
(Deleted comment)
jongibbs
Aug. 19th, 2009 12:14 pm (UTC)
Lol. I'll have to remeber that one. I love reading scenes where a pretentious character tries to sound smart but says the wrong thing :)
incandragon
Aug. 19th, 2009 12:24 pm (UTC)
Epitome, when people use it to mean an example of the perfect X. It means the perfect example -- as in, spot-on typical -- of X.
jongibbs
Aug. 19th, 2009 12:34 pm (UTC)
So does that mean 'epitome' is the epitome of mis-used words? ;)

Or have I got that wrong? :(
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alaneer
Aug. 19th, 2009 12:47 pm (UTC)
Great list here, though I have to disagree with the blood having no odor. Family members, doctor and ICU nurse both told me that blood does have an odor. Also, healthy blood smells different than the blood of an ill person.
jongibbs
Aug. 19th, 2009 12:52 pm (UTC)
'...healthy blood smells different than the blood of an ill person...'

That makes a lot of sense. To be honest, Lew and I agreed to disagree on the matter when it first came up. He was critiquing a scene from Waking up Jack Thunder, where I had my MC noticing the odor from a lot of fresh-spilled blood in the backeat of the car he was in.

From the many comments above, I'd say your not alone in disagreeing :)
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Things What I Wrote and Other Stuff

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