Posted On September 6, 2013 by Print This Post

When Is a Word Not a Word with Kristin Anders

I’m so excited to have freelance editor, Kristin Anders, here with us today. We were introduced via Facebook by author Gina L. Maxwell and we hit it off. I was immediately impressed with her talent and her love for romance. When we finally met at RWA Nationals in July – it was like we’d known each other forever! 

When Is a Word Not a Word, and When Is Word a Verb

I was fortunate enough to participate in a word discussion the other day. A Kristin Anders The Romantic Editorromance author asked about spasmed. Specifically, she asked if spasmed is a word and could her character use it. She received twenty-two varied answers.

Is spasmed a word? Good question. Merriam-Webster.com says spasm is a noun and an intransitive verb (a verb without an object). OxfordDictionaries.com says spasm is only a noun and doesn’t recognize spasmed in its pages at all.

So can we call spasmed—the past tense of spasm—a word? Well, yes, and for a few reasons.

First, for fiction writing purposes, which dictionary prevails? The Chicago Manual of Style prefers authors use Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary for word usage (see CMOS 5.220). Following Chicago’s rule, spasm (and its past tense form spasmed) can be used as an intransitive verb. This alone gives authors safe ground to write spasmed, at the very least, without an object. (Example: She spasmed.)

Spasmed is also somewhat commonly used. This is determined because it’s been written several times in published fiction. Commonly used words still count as words, even though they’re not in the dictionaries.

Side Note: How can a word not in the dictionary be a word? Let’s not forget how words become inducted into Merriam-Webster in the first place: by people using them. (See Merriam-Webster.com’s “How does a word get into a Merriam-Webster dictionary.”)

Can spasmed be a word if OxfordDictionaries.com is the controlling dictionary? Yes, because of verbing. Verbing allows English speakers to turn a noun into a verb and use it. (See DailyWritingTips’s “The Verbing of the English Language”.) While verbing is not commonly allowed in nonfiction (I’d guess it isn’t used at all), verbing is practiced in day-to-day usage and most definitely in fiction.
But, the romance author then asked the most important part of her question.

Would the character use spasmed?

While spasmed is an accepted word (in fiction). It is still not a word documented in all dictionaries.

Thus, not all characters would use spasmed in their dialogues—internal or external. It could also be argued spasmed shouldn’t be used during a character’s third person point of view if that character would not say it aloud.

If the character is a rule follower with the highest respect for written authority—such as a strict, narrow-thinking professor—this character might not acknowledge spasmed as a word.

An older character might not use spasmed either. Because while spasmed is in use now, it might not have been when the older character was forming the firm rules for his or her vocabulary.
On the other hand, if the older character studies linguistics—he or she would be aware spasmed is being used. If that is the case, the character traits would dictate whether the character would use spasmed.

The character’s geographic location would also effect whether he or she would use spasmed.

Who would use spasmed?

Practically anyone else, like characters that aren’t aware spasmed may or may not be acknowledged as a word.

Characters who write nonfiction or are well-educated with a superiority complex would almost scoff at spasmed—they certainly wouldn’t think it or say it. On the other hand, a character could be faking these things and misuse the word spasmed.

Obviously, this is too much analysis of spasmed, but the same thought can be given to characters’ crutch words and slang authors integrate into their novels.

So, is spasmed a word and would a character use it?
Yes. And maybe.

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Analyzing words and their usage doesn’t always result in clear answers. What word problems have you struggled with, and what did you decide?

Join Amy Alessio tomorrow for a laugh out loud reader roundup!

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Bio:

Kristin Anders is a freelance romance-genre editor who loves long dark moments and em dashes. She was a paralegal for six years before starting a romance blog so she could receive an ARC of Monica McCarty’s next Scottish Historical. Soon after, Kristin became a member of Romance Writers of America, joined a local chapter, and landed an internship with Entangled Publishing. She now attends writing and editing workshops, edits romance novels full time, and lives happily ever after.

The Romantic Editor Website

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Discussion

18 Responses to “When Is a Word Not a Word with Kristin Anders”

  1. Hey Kristin, :) A word is also not a word when it’s in a foreign language, yet used every day in English, e.g. forte, joie de vivre, ciao. Somebody needs to teach Word these things. BTW, I didn’t know there was such a word as verbing. Huh.

    Posted by Joan Leacott | September 6, 2013, 9:29 am
  2. I’m a word geek – this is my kind of post! The biggest (or most frequent) problem I have is American vs. British slang and idioms. I lived in England just long enough to pick up a lot of words and phrases that are in common use in the U.K. but aren’t familiar to most Americans. My husband is British and we watch a lot of British TV shows, which keeps these words and phrases in my head.

    I have occasionally tripped up over American words, too – the most embarrassing was “lave” vs. “lathe.” One I come across in fiction frequently is “timber” vs. “timbre.” Don’t get me started!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | September 6, 2013, 9:46 am
    • Ha! I can just see it now. “The timber in his voice.”

      No, no. That’s a tree.

      But for the idioms, I’ve seen authors introduce them, them exain them in clever ways. Maybe someone will say the idiom and the person who’s POV we’re in will react to it internally. In a way that clarifies the meaning.

      Posted by Kristin Anders | September 6, 2013, 10:24 am
  3. Thanks for clarifying how to spell “spasmed,” which I have used in writing. Word didn’t like anyway I wrote it! Now I’ll just add it to the dictionary. I’ve never heard “verbing” either. Certainly shorter than the more “correct” LOL “turning a noun into a verb.” Interesting post.

    Posted by Marsha R. West | September 6, 2013, 9:48 am
  4. (this was posted in response to our newsletter)

    Thanks for this. I’m a self-published author who recently used ‘google’ as a verb and also used it in the past tense as ‘googled’ in my latest work “Against His Will.” I did it because in everyday language, when checking the internet for information, we say ‘google it’ or “I googled it.” At the time I wasn’t sure if I was committing sacrilege of the English Language but went with my instinct that since we use it in every day speech then characters could also use it in their speech. This article helps me feel more comfortable about my decision. Thanks.

    Brigette Manie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | September 6, 2013, 9:57 am
    • Hey!! As long as you’re writing fiction using Google as a verb is just fine. Be sure it’s being used by a charter who would use Google in the first place.

      Also, cap Google/Googled. Since Google is a brand it’s always capitalized. (Same with Internet, for that matter.)

      Posted by Kristin Anders | September 6, 2013, 10:29 am
  5. Morning Kristin…

    Oh..I always use google it! Or I googled it! I look up a lot of slang in the Urban Dictionary…it came in really handy a few weeks ago when I was looking up “twerking”…lol…a lot of those words won’t last I’m sure, but at least I know what the kids are talking about!

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | September 6, 2013, 9:59 am
  6. This is a fantastic article and I wish I’d had it when I first started writing fiction. I was confused as to why MS Word refused to accept “pistoned” as a word when I knew I’d seen it in other books. Eventually I decided to thwart Microsoft and I added it to my dictionary so it would stop yelling at me with those damn squiggly red lines. (BTW, this page has doesn’t like pistoned either. It’s red lining me. Gah!)

    Here’s a fun fact: Twerk was recently added to the Oxford dictionary. As was “bootylicious” years ago when Beyonce sang about her body being “too bootylicious.” :)

    Posted by Gina L. Maxwell | September 6, 2013, 11:40 am
    • Pistoned is another good example. I remember when I was just starting–before I hung out my editing sign and was still working for free–I flagged that word in an author’s MS. My comment was something like, “I’ve seen this used, but this is nowhere close to how the word is used. Maybe it’s comparing his hips to a machine part? I’m not sure, but I get the essence of what you mean. Use it; just know pistoned is not actually a word.”

      Posted by Kristin Anders | September 6, 2013, 12:40 pm
  7. Kristin – excellent post! Thanks for being here today . . . I’m off to keep celebrating the Main Man’s 50th birthday!

    Robin

    Posted by Robin Covington | September 6, 2013, 12:05 pm
  8. Hi Kristin,

    Word uses change over time. Gay and queer are two that have evolved. Best to be sure you say what you mean and mean what you say.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | September 6, 2013, 12:15 pm
  9. As the romance author who started this whole conversation, I particularly appreciate this post. :-) In my case, however, the word wasn’t going to be spoken in dialogue. If that was the case, I would have damned the torpedoes and plowed straight ahead, because I think dialogue should always be true to the character speaking it, not the dictionary. But because I was planning to use the word to describe a character in action (“She sat up from the bedroll, wincing as her back spasmed…”), I wanted to have it right. In the end I decided to leave it as is and let my editor decide, lol!

    Posted by Laura Sheehan | September 6, 2013, 5:34 pm

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