No One Writes Plays About People Brushing Their Teeth

My play writing teacher back in college used to regularly tell us, “No one writes plays about people brushing their teeth.” At the time, my first thought was, “Oh, yeah? Just wait.” Of course, she was right and no one gives a rat’s ass about people brushing their teeth. People turning into rhinoceroses or people standing around waiting for some mysterious thing or person to show up are still perfectly acceptable, even if they are so mired in dense allegory that most folks never get past the rhinos or just who the fuck Godot was.

Hint: Godot was all the stupid shit we spend our time waiting for. At least according to Samuel Beckett, but what does he know?

But here’s a funny thing: Everyone brushes their teeth. And, just like there’s no one right way to eat a peanut butter cup, everyone does it a little differently. For some people, it’s a ritual: Present the toothbrush, bow, and move to each tooth with military precision. Others, slap some toothpaste on the brush and go to town while humming Bliss N Eso songs and drooling toothpaste on themselves. I’ll leave it up to you to determine which one I am.

How we approach things tells people a lot about us. Are we the kind of people who want a neat, tidy meal where the burger wrapper is folded exactly so and there’s a distinct place on the wrapper for the burger, the fries, and the ketchup and they DO NOT TOUCH? Or are we the kind of people who can eat the whole meal straight out of the bag and toss it in the back seat for the next owner of our car to deal with?

Little things that seem trivial when we’re doing them can cast long shadows on our psyches. They’re the kinds of things that add richness and detail to characters, too. Little quirks like collecting Pop Swatches or having an affinity for Teen Beat magazine might not be important to the character’s arc, but they can help explain why a character is doing something without, you know, explicitly explaining it.

Think about this way. How interesting is reading about a character when the author comes straight out and says, “She was anal-retentive”? Boring. What about describing how she opened her burger, pushed it gently to the side of the wrapper, poured the fries neatly on the other side, and put the ketchup perfectly in the middle. Or a character that eats burritos with a knife and fork? Or describing a room so organized that the books on the bookshelf were all exactly the same height and organized in perfect alphabetical order? Those little keys add up to saying someone’s a neat freak without resorting to actually saying it.

While it’s doubtful anyone will write a play about someone brushing their teeth, it’s entirely likely that describing the way someone brushes their teeth can create a more complete picture of the character.

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Serve Your Sentence With Aplomb

There have been several claims about what the longest sentence in English is. They range from over a thousand words (1,288 in Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom!) to nearly 14,000 (13,955 in Jonathon Coe’s The Rotter’s Club). Even though Coe’s apparently got the record nailed down tight until new sentence technology is discovered, 1,288 is freakin’ long sentence. Especially when most sentences range between 10 and 20 words with outliers on both sides.

The Oxford Guide to Plain English recommends 15-20 word average sentences because as the author, Martin Cutts, explains, “More people fear snakes than full stops, so they recoil when a long sentence comes hissing across the page.”

Jyoti Sanyal’s Indlish has this to say on the subject: “Based on several studies, press associations in the USA have laid down a readability table. Their survey shows readers find sentences of 8 words or less very easy to read; 11 words, easy; 14 words fairly easy; 17 words standard; 21 words fairly difficult; 25 words difficult and 29 words or more, very difficult.”

Sentence length and ease of reading

  • 8 words or less: very easy
  • 11 words: easy
  • 14 words: fairly easy
  • 17 words: standard
  • 21 words: fairly difficult
  • 25 words: difficult
  • 29+ words: very difficult

While there’s evidence that the average sentence length has shrunk 75% in the last 500 years – it wasn’t uncommon to see 70+ word sentences in the 1600s – that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea (or good writing) to go for the long sentence. The reason for that has to do with readability. There’s evidence that the average person reading a 14 word sentence will pick up +90% of what they’re reading; that number drops to less than 10% at 43 words.

All this sentence length and reading comprehension stuff is something that’s been pinging around in my head ever since I wrote that post on words back in June. The gist of that post was understanding average vocabulary size with a brief foray into reading levels in prose and why writing to a 7th grade level wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. While that post spent more time with the number of unique words in a book, it touched on the idea of sentence length impacting readability and that idea stuck in my craw. After all, even a short sentence filled with words like fustian, byzantine, and polyglot can make a minefield for some people:

The polyglot’s mind was a byzantine mass of competing ideas and definitions that led to her fustian speech.

Okay, so at 18 words that was slightly over the standard sentence length, but not so outside the norm that it should be hard to parse. On the other hand, most people don’t regularly use words like polyglot, byzantine, and fustian, so those will be speed bumps on the superhighway to comprehension. Other than that, there’s nothing untoward about the sentence. A simple parsing, even accounting for the odd word choice, should reveal she has a whole whack of ideas and definitions and that does something bad to the way she speaks. If you want to go full information density on it, we can also assume she’s probably smart since she knows multiple languages, but her thoughts are jumbled since she sometimes gets lost juggling all those languages and that reflects in the way she talks. Basically it’s an excuse for what seems like pompous oratory.

Parsing is the key element here. While there can be multiple types of sentences – declarative, interrogative, exclamative, and imperative – all sentences come down one key thing: relating words into a complete, coherent idea. Or, if you want to get all fancy with it, according to dictionary.com, a sentence is “a grammatical unit of one or more words that expresses an independent statement, question, request, command, exclamation, etc, and that typically has a subject as well as a predicate, as in John is here. or Is John here?

So, really, a sentence is a bunch of words meant to convey a singular idea, no matter how complicated that idea might be. The kicker is, in order to understand the idea, you have to get through the sentence. That usually entails finding space in your head to store the words and brain CPU time to parse and process the words. All of this has to happen in the background as you’re reading and, in some cases, even moving onto the next sentence.

And you thought you weren’t smart. Shame on you. Even reading this post is requiring you to brain and brain hard.

By the way, if you’re thinking you’re going to break Coe’s longest sentence record, go for it. According to linguists, there is no functional top end in how long a sentence can be in English. Because of the way the language is structured, it’s possible to keep adding recursion (He said that she said that her grandmother said that Cthulhu said that guy over there did something…) or subordinate clauses or semi-colons or iterations or enumerations until the end of time. Even with just enumerations, it’s theoretically possible to write an endless sentence: She started counting to herself, never intending to stop: One, two, three, four, five, six… That sentence will only end when she runs out of numbers and I have it on good authority that there are a lot of them.

Does all this mean you should never go full Coe and write two short-stories’ worth of words into one sentence? Not necessarily, just realize longer sentences are harder to parse and, therefore, less likely to engage your reader. 15-20 words should be enough to convey the message you need to get across with a sentence. If it takes longer than that, or if you find yourself going balls to the wall with recursion, subordinate clauses, and whatnot, you might want to consider breaking longer sentences into shorter sentences. After all, it doesn’t matter how good your ideas are if no one can load and parse them.

A quick addendum to this: As was pointed out in the comments, vary the length of your sentences. Shorter sentences read faster which allows you to speed up the pace; longer ones slow reading down, which allows a reader time to rest.

Just try to avoid the 1000+ word sentences. No one wants to read those.

What are your thoughts on sentence length? Leave me a comment.

Show Me The Stuff

Here’s an interesting factoid for you: The cast of the original Star Trek were among the last actors that were trained by picture. Apparently, when they were learning to act, part of their training consisted of showing them pictures of people doing particular faces to represent various emotions. This is what a scared person looks like. This is what a happy person looks like. So on and so forth.

Better than his Spocked face.

In a way, it makes a certain kind of sense. As a TV actor, part of the job is making sure the audience understands what’s going on. If you make a particular face, everyone knows you’re shocked. Then we don’t have to expend additional energy trying to decide who’s shocked, who’s got ennui, and who’s blasé about about life; we can focus on the antics of Spock and Bones.

What does all this have to do with price of tea in China? Funny you should ask. But first, allow me to digress.

Back when I was still teaching Kenpo, I learned more teaching than I did learning. The reason was I had to not only be able to teach the techniques as I learned them, but be able to explain why the technique worked. It required an in-depth understanding to do it well.

Editing can change things.

Editing a book is kind of like teaching. It forces you to look at things differently. While I’m editing someone’s book, I’m also mentally editing my own works and noting what works and what doesn’t work when I’m reading it instead of writing it.

I’ve recently been editing a book for some folks. While it’s not a bad book, there are a few things in there that had me scratching my head and a few things that could really be expanded. In the writing world, we love to say “show, don’t tell.” The things that needed expanded fell into the “show, don’t tell” category. It wasn’t that they were bad lines, they just needed some expansion.

I’m not going to reproduce their lines here. Like I said, they’re not bad lines. But you see bad lines all the time. Little throw-away lines that would be easy to turn from bland to interesting.

Take this:

“I could tell she was upset.”

It’s a classic example of tell, not show. It’s also boring and feels half-assed. To make it interesting, look back to the way the original cast of Star Trek was trained and start asking question. How could I tell she was upset? Well, she looked upset. What does that look like? If you were to paint a picture of someone who was upset, what would it look like?

Steam always comes out of ears when people are upset. Seriously, watch a cartoon sometime.

That’s the essence of showing instead of telling.

An upset person can scowl, furrow their brow, snort, frown, grimace, narrow their eyes, glare, yell, blow steam out of their ears, and break things. Think about a person you’ve known and what he or she looked like when they were upset. Then write that.

Instead of “I could tell she was upset” how about:

“Her glare could peel the paint off a battleship. Those expressive brown eyes I love so much wouldn’t meet my gaze. She was completely focused on the bent spoon in her hand when she said, ‘I can’t believe you cheated at Street Fighter 2. I had that match and you know it’.”

Without ever saying “she’s upset” we know she’s upset. If in doubt, toss in a line about steam coming out of her ears.

Show it, don’t tell it.

Got any tips for showing instead of telling? Drop ’em in the comments and let the world see. In the interim, keep writing.

Writing Process

 

I type like the wind.

Stephen King has repeated said he writes every day. I saw him when he was in Albuquerque being interviewed on stage by George R.R. Martin. Martin, at one point in the interview asked, “How do you write so fast?” Or words to that effect. I seem to remember him asking “How do you write so fucking fast?”, but that may just be my unrequited love affair with the word ‘fuck’. Either way it was asked, King’s response was “I write six good pages a day. Every day.” Again, words to that effect. I don’t seem to remember King saying, “I write six good fucking pages a day”, but he might have.

At any rate, this was not new information. I think everyone knows Stephen King writes every day. He’s been forward about that for years. After all, it’s his job and you don’t blow off work just because you don’t feel like doing it. On the other hand, George R.R. Martin is famous for taking years to knock out a new novel. In Martin’s defense, let’s face it, A Song of Fire and Ice is some crazy complicated shit and each scene has to work with every other scene that has come before it. So, it’s not entirely surprising that the TV series will likely end before the book series.

So, what does all this have to do with the price of tea in China? I’m of the opinion that writing every day is a good thing. It could be a couple lines, it could be a few hundred, but I write something every day almost without fail. For me, it’s just become something I do out of habit and I feel bad if I don’t do it. Writing is my way of unwinding and I feel a bit lost if I don’t get some in every night.

House is on fire, but I’m almost done with this chapter.

But that’s not necessarily for everyone. A couple days ago I came across a Twitter thread about exactly that thing. The general gist of the thread was that feeling like you have to write every day is bullshit. Life, it seems, oftentimes has other plans for our free time. Be it work, play, or a new Star Wars movie coming out, sometimes you simply can’t find time every day to put words on pages.

Besides, as I’ve repeatedly said, I didn’t start writing to follow everyone else’s rules. The world is already full of people following everyone else’s rules. My rule is trying my damnedest to write something every day, but it’s not for everyone. Rules are for suckers, anyway. Make your own rules.

At the beginning of the year, I wrote a post about the magic of writing. Now that the year is coming to a close, I’d like to reiterate what I wrote then: If there’s something you love to do, find time to do it. It doesn’t matter how far you go. It doesn’t matter how fast you go. It matters that you go.

So, get out there and go.

What about you? Got any thoughts on writing every day? Drop ’em in the comments; I love comments and am usually fairly good at replying to them.

And now, your moment of Zen.

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Let Me Dialogue With You

This is the full text of a guest post I did on Rebecca Cahill’s blog back in September. If you get a chance, drop by and say, “Howdy” or whatever floats your goat. She’s got a great blog and it’s worth checking out.

Back in high school, I had a buddy who thought outside the box. I’ll call him CD to protect his identiy. CD used to write random thoughts, some of which were funny, others thoughtful, and try to sell them to the Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to his door. In his mind, if they were going to try to sell copies of The Watchtower to him, he was going to sell his own magazine to them.

He never did manage to sell any magazines, but he’s been a wealth of stories for me.

One day during a college break, we were sitting in the McDonald’s in the local Walmart and shooting the breeze. It would seem he had a lot of free time on his hands in college and decided on the ultimate way to pick up women at the bar. He was going to buy an Armenian Air Force uniform he’d found somewhere and try to convince people he’d flown Harriers during the Falklands War.

Yes, this was a long time ago. Thanks for asking.

Since he couldn’t do a British accent to save his own butt, he’d come up with some non-distinct, but vaguely foreign-sounding accent. He’d been observing the foreign students at UNM and had discovered a way to really sell his story. If someone were to ask him a question, he’d pause briefly, like he was translating the question from English to whatever language he was pretending to be fluent in, before answering.

“You really flew Harrier jump jets during the Falklands War?”

Pause. “Yes. Yes, I did.”

<Swoon>

I don’t know if he ever tried it in real life, but I’m guessing probably not. However, if you ever come across a guy in a bar wearing an Armenian Air Force uniform and claiming to have flown Harriers during the Falklands War, tell him I said hi and remind him he’s got a wife at home who may or may not know about his past life.

I’m not sure what Armenian Air Force uniforms look like, so this will have to do.

CD’s attention to detail in building a character for the sole purpose of picking up women at dive bars in Albuquerque, New Mexico shows the level of effort that should go into writing characters and, more importantly, the way characters interact with the world you’re creating. It’s the little things that sell characters. Little vocal quirks, like pausing before speaking, add a depth of realism that you just can’t get by slapping some words on a page.

Now, this little diatribe of mine is less about character creation and more about dialogue. Unfortunately, those two things are very intertwined with each other. Also unfortunately, the dialogue aspect of character creation is one of the easiest things to completely screw up. How many times have you come across an excellent narrative only to have it nosedive the first time a character talks?

“I would never do something like, for in doing that, I have forgone my something.”

Seriously, who talks like that?

Writers tend to be introverts. Not always, but there’s definitely a trend that way. You can’t spend the day hammering away at a typewriter, smoking, and swilling whisky like it’s fitness water if you’re extroverted. Don’t get me wrong, introversion can be a good thing. It’s hard to craft worlds and create things to put in those worlds when someone wants to, you know, talk and do stuff.

I’m talking to my characters, thank you very much.

And now, for no reason, Captain James T. Kirk wearing a green woman instead of an Armenian Air Force Uniform.

When we spend too much alone – whisky doesn’t count as an interactive friend – we start to forget what people are really like. Before you yell, “So what?” and start throwing things at the computer, remember this: regular people are the ones you’re trying to sell books to. And regular people like to see things that look real to them. As we’ve already established, one of the best ways to make a character look real is through the way they talk.

But dialogue is more than just character development, it serves other important purposes in a book. Everyone loves to say, “Show, don’t tell”, and dialogue is one of the best ways to do that. If you’ve got exposition to handle, try letting the characters talk about it. If there’s a complex plot substructure or twist, let the characters explain it rather than resorting to a few paragraphs explaining why something happened.

“You mean the minions of Hell aren’t really bad guys so much as misunderstood folks that have been the victims of a multi-millennium smear campaign propagated by a group that had a profit motive?”

“Exactly! These guys aren’t the real bad guys, those guys over there are!”

“My God! It was Old Man Jenkins leading them all along!”

When owls gasp

Okay, not exactly my best dialogue, but you get the point. Let the characters do the heavy lifting when explaining things. It makes for more interesting writing and, let’s face it, it’s a time-honored tradition. Just ask Aristotle.

Now we’ve got a couple good reasons to work with dialogue in a story: character development and showing rather than telling. The problem is, if your dialogue isn’t realistic, no one will read it and all your time spent putting your characters in Armenian Air Force uniforms and letting them explain the dynamics of your world will be for naught.

So, how do you write realistic dialogue? Well, fortunately, that’s the easy part. It does require a modicum of effort, but it’s effort well-spent. Go back to that idea that regular people read books and they want to read about people that seem real. Then go listen to some real people talking. Bada bing, bada boom, you’ve got the makings of good dialogue.

The real world, no matter how irksome it may be sometimes, is full of examples of how to write good dialogue. The first thing you have to do is toss aside all the rules of grammar that we’re all supposed to adhere to when we’re writing. Follow the rules in the text, but realize people don’t speak in grammatically correct sentences. People talk over each other, they use contractions and colloquialisms, conversations wander, points don’t always go where we think they’re supposed to go. Sometimes people forget their points entirely.

My buddy in college and I could spend all night talking. This was back before texting and when Geocities was still a thing, so talking was a good way to pass the time waiting for the damned modem to connect. Our conversations went all over the place and outsiders had trouble keeping up. One night, he, his girlfriend, and I were all out by the fountain chatting and looking at the stars. As per usual, the conversation drifted all over the place like a drunken frat boy and his poor girlfriend was feeling a bit lost.

“You guys shift topics constantly,” she said, “how do you do that?”

“Yep,” I replied, “We shift gears so fast…”

And then I lost my witty retort and ended with the lame-ass “we go really fast.”

“We shift gears so fast…we go really fast.”

I swear, I actually had something for that and lost it mid-sentence. Poof. Gone. Vanished. I want to say my buddy wrote that whole scene into a book of his own.

When your real life hits a book

People do that kind of thing all the time. Conversation is rarely linear, sometimes doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and almost never follows the grammatical rules that govern writing. If you want to make your dialogue more realistic, listen to people talking and use what you learn. Toss aside the monologuing, kick the perfect sentence structure to the curb, and revel in all the things you don’t get to do in the main part of the text.

You’re not supposed to use “ain’t” in good writing because it’s not a word? People use it all the time, so stuff it into dialogue. Do you love thinking in run-on sentences, but worry about getting tagged by grammar Nazis? Let a character babble away. Give them linguistic quirks like pausing before talking or saying “Okay” a lot at the end of sentences. Christoph Fischer did an excellent job with this in his book In Search Of A Revolution. In that book, Fischer had a character repeat words when he was stressed or otherwise out of his element. “No, no, no. That’s not what’s supposed to happen.” Things like that.

The trick here is that the dialogue must fit the character. It’s unlikely you’ll ever have an aristocrat use the word “ain’t”, but it ain’t outside the realm of possibilities if you develop the character that way. This is where you embrace the character with all his or her flaws and really dig into their head. Remember, just like real people, characters reveal their natures through not only what they do, but what they say, so the dialogue has to fit the psychology of the character. Since you created the character, you’re the ultimate arbiter of whether a line of dialogue fits a character’s development. As long as you as a writer don’t look at what your characters are saying and think it’s out of character, it’s unlikely anyone else will, either.

One gotcha here: a character’s linguistic quirks and dialogue have to remain intact throughout the whole of the book or story. I had a character in a recent book who I decided shouldn’t use contractions. The last few pages of the story explained why, so it became important that none of his dialogue had a contraction. It was nightmarish looping through the whole text and verifying Chan never shortened his words.

In the end, it might pay off or it might not. It’s possible, that was something most people will ignore or not even notice. That may be a perfect example of taking a linguistic quirk too far, but it did differentiate his dialogue from the rest of the characters who cursed and used contractions with reckless abandon, so it wasn’t a complete waste.

Let your characters live and breathe. Sure, dress them in Armenian Air Force uniforms and let them claim to have flown Harriers, but if you want to make them real, it’s their dialogue that will do that. Pay attention to how people really talk and you’ll be well on your way. Don’t be afraid to copy conversations from your best friend in high school or the quirks your boss gets when she’s mad that the project still isn’t done. Take all those things and weave them into the story. Observe the world and use what you find to enhance your writing. Your dialogue will be that much more realistic because it’s based on real conversations.

Twittering

Keep going. Keep getting better.

Twitter catches a lot of crap for being the digital version of the Wild Wild West. While that may be partially true in a “not racists, but #1 with racists” kind of way, that doesn’t mean the whole shebang is a shit-show. And, to be fair to Twitter, they’ve nuked a bunch of White Supremacist groups. There are plenty of good reasons to explore Twitter and a lot of good things can be found there, too.

At the very least, you’ve got #caturday, so you can haz cheezburger if you’d like.

I’ve used Twitter for a variety of writing-related reasons, ranging from seeing what’s out there and dropping ads, to playing the writing prompt games.

A couple posts back, I wrote a post about the idea of getting better at things by doing them a lot. Like most of my posts, it was a rambling affair, full of magic and heroism that talked around the issue as much as engaging it. That post was partially a reaction to various people I’ve met who  worry about not being good enough at writing to write a book. To those people, I’ll reiterate: Yeah, you’re probably not, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t just write the freaking thing even if you’re not an expert at writing. Do something often enough, look for a feedback loop, and, if you take the feedback into account, you’ll likely get better at it.

Don’t listen to him. Zoidberg hates everyone.

In other words, just start writing. The more you do it, the more natural it will become. Pay attention to criticisms, provided they’re not completely useless, and you’ll improve. Simple as that.

Now here’s something else to add. When I first started programming, I followed the directions in the book and things happened and I was happy. But, I didn’t really learn to program until I had to sit down and write an application that I didn’t get to choose and I didn’t have the book with handy-dandy directions to follow. It was just “write me a service that will listen for GPS data from trains, figure out where they are, and determine how far off schedule they are based on position and time.”

That’s when the rubber hit the road. Or the wheels hit the iron. Whatever.

The point being, I didn’t get good at it until I had to do something where I didn’t get to choose what the program was going to do. There was also a lot of feedback from the customer about what things were working, what weren’t, and how many things needed to be changed. In the end – such as it is – I wrote what they wanted and got a whole whack of new skills in the process.

Or, in my case, it was trying to figure out how to determine time on target when speed is a huge variable.

Which loops us back to Twitter. In the midst of all the cat pictures and ass-random presidential tweets, lies a pretty large group of authors swapping lines back and forth. Do a little digging and you’ll find people tagging tweets with things like #musemon, #2bittues, #1linewed, #thurds, #fictfri, #slapdashsat, and #sunwip. To the unitiated, those may sound like gobbledygook, cockamamie nonsense, or flat-out flumadiddle, but the tags have meaning to the authors that partake in them.

See, Twitter is a vast wasteland and it’s impossible to take in the whole of it, so it’s segmented by hashtags that create little sub-worlds withing the vast miasma of the whole of Twitterdom. Once you learn about those hashtags, you get the keys to the kingdom.

Most of these hashtags have rules. They’re not simple “write whatever you feel like and toss a tag on it” games. Each week, the person responsible for the tag determines a theme for the week. It could be thankful or half-full or angry or whatever. All except #slapdashsat, that’s always theme-free. So, each person that tweets and tags that tweet is expected to follow the theme. In a pure world, you’d find a line from whatever you’re writing that fits and use that. Sometimes, that line doesn’t exist, though, and that’s when the rubber hits the road.

Just like with programming, you can learn a lot from writing according to a spec, even if it is a one-word spec. So, whenever I don’t have a line that will fit, I write one that fits the tag and the book I’m working on. In case you’re wondering, most of those tweets will wind up in the book in some form or another.

This is what I’m working on, by the way.

Now, part of my morning ritual is going over the tweets from the one or two tag games per day I follow and putting up my own tweets. It’s been a great way to see if I can work a word or phrase into whatever I’m working on or sharing something I’d already used in a story. There’s something about being put on the spot that’s helped me craft a few zingers here and there and the process has improved my writing by making me think beyond just what I feel like doing.

Besides, remember that feedback loop that’s so important to getting better at a thing? In the Twitterverse, that feedback comes from likes, retweets, and the odd comment. Hashtag games have become a great way to test lines in front of a group of people I’ve never met and see what works and what doesn’t.

Feel like trying it out? Dig up the hashtag games for the day and post a few tweets. Who knows, maybe you’ll strike gold.

Nonplussed

American English is, of course, descended from original British English (English English?). That language, in turn, was descended from a whole host of other languages and pinned together in a patchwork quilt of defeated and absorbed peoples. For such a mish-mash language it really shouldn’t surprise me that the English spoken in the U.K. is different in some ways from the English spoken here in the colonies.

Even various regions of the United States have dialectical differences between them. For instance, in some places you might get a hero, in others a hoagie. In other places, like here for instance, you might just hungry thinking about sandwiches. Whether you order a soda, a pop, or a coke (not necessarily Coke, Pepsi will work, too), you’re still getting some bubbly stuff with far too much sweet, sweet sugar in it.

Food words I get. It makes sense that different parts of the country – and the world – have different types of food and different names for those foods. I live in New Mexico, so we’ve got a huge catalog of cultural food to draw from, but even some of those foods are different depending on where in the state you are. For instance, Gorditas are a completely different experience in Las Cruces from what you get in the northern parts of the state. The Gorditas you get from Taco Bell are even further from what everyone else makes.

But other words have also drifted from the mother tongue over the years. The one that really took me by surprise was “nonplussed.” I wrote a short story last month and had some friends from the other side of the pond beta read it and give me notes and one of the notes I got highlighted “nonplussed.” In the notes, she’d written, “Is that the right word. He’s perplexed?” My first thought was she must have misread it, but upon looking up the definition I found she was right.

Mostly.

In U.K. English, nonplussed means “surprised and confused so much that they are unsure how to react.” In informal U.S. English (the only kind I speak, see also: Bad English), nonplussed means “not disconcerted or unperturbed.”

Most of the time, when you’re dealing with regionalisms the meaning can be sussed out pretty easily. A book written in the U.K. will refer to boots and bonnets instead of hood and trunks. Someone from northern New Mexico reading about Gorditas might have a different vision in their head than someone from southern New Mexico, but it’s all food. Except the Gorditas from Taco Bell; I’m not sure those qualify as food. But when you come across a word that has a drastic enough difference in meaning even though it’s the same word in both languages, it can rock your world and completely change the intent of the sentence.

What gorditas might look like

By the way, this is the sentence I’m referring to.

“The good doctor looked completely nonplussed, like he knew he’d already gotten away with whatever crazy plan he’d concocted.”

So, if we accept the casual North American meaning of nonplussed, the sentence makes a lot more sense than using the U.K. English definition. Otherwise, the good doctor looked confused, even though he’d already won.

That was one of those notes you want to frame and hang on your wall just to remind you that words can, and often do, have drastically different meanings depending on where the reader is. It saved me some potential embarrassment if the story ever winds up in the U.K. In the end, I changed nonplussed to unconcerned and kept my fingers crossed.

They say good writing is supposed to excise regionalisms and, for the most part, I agree with that. Like all rules in writing, that one can be broken to add flavor and texture to a story. But sometimes regionalisms sneak up on you and you won’t even know they’re there until someone from the outside points and asks, “What’s up with this word, dog?” That’s why it pays to have friends from other countries.

Got any good regionalisms that snuck up on you?