Writing: Foreign Mistakes

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engrish_behindWe can learn a lot about the importance of proper word choice from the mistakes of foreigners.

I was in a Chinese restaurant in Spain and as if their troubled translation of the menu into Spanish wasn’t bad enough, they had also translated it into English.  Next to some of the menu items there were asterisks.  I looked to the bottom of the menu were the asterisks were explained and expecting to see the word spicy or vegetarian I read this: “These dishes are no longer in existence”.

Ok I’ll admit there’s nothing really wrong with the grammar here.  It’s just so outlandish.  What is most compelling to me (nothing to do with writing) is that these people reprinted their menu and rather than take the items off, they chose to memorialize them.   If the phrase had read, “these dishes are no longer served” it would have been very pedestrian, very normal.  But “existence” balls us over; it elevates the phrase to the level of poetry.

As writers we should employ strategy in the use of our words.  There are times to be very clear even predictable and other times when it is nice to surprise or shock.  The element at work in the phrase on the menu is surprise and the effect is humor.  What makes the word “existence” so powerful is the context.  If it had been in a speech about lost lives the word would have been merely factual.  But existence for a menu item – it’s hilarious.

Another example of a surprising word choice is when a Venezuelan girl said to me, “My leg is dreaming”.  Of course I understood her meaning but what a difference between the words dreaming and sleeping.  The poetic suggestions in her innocent mistake were delightful.

In Morocco I read a sign hanging from the wall of a craftsmen’s shack: “We fix watches at the fast moment of waiting.” We fix watches fast, or while you wait is what my eye wanted to see but the screwed up order of the words forced me to really think.  Fast moment of waiting – I know poets who would be happy to have come up with that line.

The point here is that proper word choice can either make something clear and straightforward by using the appropriate or predictable word, or it can shock us into humor and other avenues of thought.  The element of surprise in your word choice can also alleviate boring writing.  Here is a tip.  Any time you use three adjectives in a row be sure the third one is surprising or charged.  Note the difference between: The happy, playful, curious cat jumped on my lap… and… The happy, playful, predatory cat jumped on my lap.  The word predatory is not expected.  It is the difference between boredom and a living sentence.

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