Monday, December 14, 2015

Little words and meaning

Came across this in writing a letter.

"Worse than just failing was trying and failing."

That "just" makes all the difference. It emphasizes the contrast between the two options (1 and 1+1), and implies that there is something worse than "nothing."

One of our tasks in revision could be "just" this: To find places where one little word, not a big significant word like "forever" or "power", but one of those little words we use every day, will make a big difference.

After all, the reason we use "just" and "then" and "now" and "only" and "this" and "these" and "because" and "so" every single day is because they are so useful in underlining or undercutting or emphasizing our ideas. They also echo our spoken English, first because we use them in conversation, and second because they provide the emphasis in written English that tone of voice would provide when we speak.

Less is more, of course, or we'll end up with something unwieldy and poke-y (poking the reader with the constant emphasis, I mean). But this is why I read my sentences aloud, to hear when I would emphasize this phrase with a stronger tone-- and that might be where I need to insert an emphasis word.
Who is revising now? What's an example of where you've added or subtracted from a sentence or paragraph? And why?



Adrian said...

For me, revising is often about removing these little words or about ensuring they're perfectly placed. When drafting, I tend to overuse these little words, so I've set my text editor to subtly highlight "only," "just," "simply," and "solely." While revising, I'll revisit all these and yank most of them out to avoid diluting the power of the remaining ones.

With "only" in particular, I find that careful placement in the sentence is important for clarity. When we speak, an utterance like "If only I could get tickets for Star Wars, ..." is immediately understandable. But if you read closely, the literal meaning is likely a bit off from what the speaker intended.

"If only I could get tickets for Star Wars, ..."

"If I could only get tickets for Star Wars, ..."

"If I could get tickets for only Star Wars, ..."

"Only if I could get tickets for Star Wars, ..."

Not only does careful placement make the intent less ambiguous, the novelty of having it in the "right" place gives it a lot more power.

Edittorrent said...

I love that! The ONLY way I can get this right, btw, is to read each aloud and hear which is the one I mean. I couldn't really "see" the difference by just reading.

Only I love you.
I only love you.
I love only you.
I love you only.

The first is sort of sad....