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 romance 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.
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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- A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: The Art of Writing Dialogue with Maria McKenzie
- From Caterpillar to Butterfly: My Evolution as a Writer by Codi Gary
- Ask an Editor: How do I make an editor like my characters?
- When is it Time to Hire an Editor? with RU Contributing Editor Heather Webb