Dictionary Smarts Can Up Ratingsbysr71plt©
A story is meant to be a partnership of shared understanding and appreciation between the author and reader, not an author's "just try to understand what I've written" game (well, for most of us). The dictionary is an aid to writers (and readers) in making this happen, and there is a way to "read" the dictionary to take much of the burden of "what is right and what is wrong" off the shoulders of writers to a greater extent than most authors seem to realize. Here are a few tips for "reading" the dictionary in U.S. publishing style to take some of the guesswork out of spelling, hyphenation, and capitalization decisions, to free time for the creative aspects of story writing, and to help your story ratings go up, if you are a Literotica author, or to help you clean up a story if you are a Literotica editor.
First, there are basically two types of English-language dictionaries. There are descriptive dictionaries that focus on telling you the latest information available on "what is" in word usage. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate dictionary is one of these kind. And then there are prescriptive dictionaries, such as the American Heritage dictionary that focus on telling you the "why" of word usage. Both kinds of dictionaries are trying to help writers make the best and least obtrusive choices in word usage. And most writers miss the boat named Opportunity by not using the dictionary enough—and most editors would have been able to see through a veil of sloppy writing to see content issues better and to improve an author's story significantly if the author had used the dictionary more. Although it's good to consult both types of dictionaries when working with a word meaning, this essay will concentrate on the descriptive dictionary, and, in particular, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate dictionary (which isn't just in print; it's available for free use on line), because the essay is concentrating on helping Literotica authors (and editors) who are using the U.S. style pick the best-choice renderings of words for their Literotica stories.
It's fine to write Literotica stories in the styles of other English-language markets as well, and much of what you find here is relevant for those markets too, but there will be variations in those systems that aren't covered here. This is targeted to the stories being written in the U.S. style (which is the primary style of Literotica). For the British-style market, the dictionary of choice is the Oxford dictionary.
U.S. publishing has selected two descriptive dictionaries as its spelling/hyphenation/capitalization authorities. These are the best for a Literotica author writing in the U.S. style to use simply because the whole point of such standardization is to make the presentation of a story as transparent and understandable for the reader as possible so that the reader can concentrate on the content of the story itself. The kicker is that when the Literotica story reader isn't given this consideration, the vengeance taken is usually shown in the story rating and the "get an editor" comments. You don't need an editor to get a lot of this right.
The standard style guide for U.S. market fiction publishing is the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS—because nearly all publishers accept this authority so that there will be a recognized standard). The CMS, again for the sake of making life simple and understandable and word renderings transparent for the reader, has identified two dictionaries as "best choices" (CMS, 2.51). The absolute best is Webster's Third New International Dictionary. Almost no one, including publishing houses, actually uses this, though, because it is so humongous in bulk that it requires its own special table to reside on and you'd need a crane to move it across the room. This leaves the latest edition (currently the eleventh) of the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate dictionary as the one of choice.
The smart writer won't fight using this dictionary—the author will just be relieved the publishing industry is helping by reducing the number of wheels that have to be reinvented each time you sit down to write a story.
(A couple of asides on the Webster's dictionary. First, "Webster's" is a generic name identifying a style of dictionary, not a company name. And, although the current edition of Webster's Collegiate dictionary is the eleventh edition, this dictionary is actually updated every time there is a new printing, which is a couple of times a year. And this is why the publishing industry has chosen it for its descriptive dictionary. It updates current word usage every couple of months. Of course, this also means that that "latest" edition you bought yesterday will, like all those damnable Microsoft products, no longer be the "latest" information a couple of months after you'd laid out twenty-five bucks for a copy. But you can access it on line for free.)
OK, then, how can learning how to "read" dictionary entries help the writer? If you learn just a few pointers on what the dictionary is trying to do for you, you will save time and worry about whether you are making the best spelling, hyphenation, capitalization choices. This will both keep you from waking up in a sweat in the night wondering why you spelled that word that way and will make more time and energy available to you for the creative aspects of story writing. And it will be good karma for your Literotica story ratings and comments too.
Webster's Collegiate dictionary has built-in pointers on how best to spell a word:
Any word entered is spelled correctly in normal writing. U.S. publishing, however, wants words spelled in as standard a way as possible so that readers don't trip over them or stop to consider whether they agree with a spelling chosen, and thus lose the flow of the story. So, in the U.S. publishing style, the first-listed choice is the standard. For instance, in normal writing the renderings "judgment" and "judgement" are both proper spellings (as long as you stick to just one version throughout the work), but the dictionary helps you identify which one the U.S. publishing industry prefers. If you go to that word, you will find the listing "judgment or judgement." This is signaling that the first-listed form is preferred.
And speaking of "signaling," if you go to "signal" to see the declension of "signaling," you'll see "signaling or signalling." This is telling you that, although "signalling" is acceptable in normal writing, the first-mentioned version, "signaling," is the preferred spelling for story writers.
So, look for and use the first listed rendering. That's the preferred choice. Zero sweat for you if you just go with the flow. It's the story elements that are the creative writing process, not the word spelling.
For the U.S. style writer, the dictionary will also identify British variation spellings (which are just fine in the British system, but shouldn't be found in U.S.-style stories). Under "labor," for instance, you will find the full listing definitions. And under the British equivalent, "labour," listing, you will find "chiefly Brit var of LABOR," which is telling you that "labor" is the best choice (in U.S. style writing). It probably won't even include any definition at the "labour" listing. This is a "duh" signal that this isn't where the action on that word is.
If you find the term trademark behind an entry (e.g., "Dolby"), by law you have to spell it exactly that way. You can use it in your writing, you just have to spell it as trademarked.
Probably the most head-scratching puzzle in the realm of spelling decisions is what to hyphenate. The dictionary will help with some of this (but not all of it—there are all sorts of instances like combined adjectives, e.g., "blue-eyed girl," and special cases like "six-year-old-boy" that aren't spelling issues. Similarly, combinations can be treated differently depending on where they are in the sentence, e.g., "She was given the heart-to-heart talk" but "The talk she was given was heart to heart." These sometimes would take a masters in grammar to work out correctly, unfortunately, so we'll just ignore them here. This is about simpler, more understandable basic good habits you can develop).
The dictionary shows much in the way of proper hyphenation, and the basic Chicago Manual of Style rule is that if you find the term in the dictionary, follow its lead on hyphenation, and if you don't find the combined-word term in the dictionary, don't either hyphenate it or run it together—leave a space between the elements (CMS, 7.85). The general rule of CMS on hyphenation is, "if in doubt, don't." (And don't be Germanic and run all of the elements together in one long glop, unless the dictionary tells you to.)
One of the stickiest issues with hyphenation in Literotica stories is use of hyphens for prefixes, like ante, anti, bi, bio, co, counter, extra, infra, inter, intra, macro, meta, micro, mid, mini, multi, neo, non, over, post, pre, pro proto, pseudo, re, semi, soci, sub, supr, trans, ultra, un, and (*whew*) under. Literotica authors seem to love to set these prefixes off with hyphens, and in nearly every case they were wrong to do so. The dictionary can help you make decisions on when a hyphen for such a prefix is in order (almost never). If you find it hyphenated in the dictionary, than hyphenate it. And if you don't, don't—run the elements together without a space. If you look at the dictionary right where any of these prefixes would be listed alphabetically, you'll find a long list of words showing that they aren't hyphenated. Chances are good the word you are looking for is on that list. The dictionary people took the time to run those long lists to try to help you shake the usually wrong-headed hyphenation habit.
Being able to read a dictionary can also help in capitalization decisions. (And, like hyphenation, the rule of thumb is "when in doubt, don't." No, English isn't so close to German that we capitalize every noun.)
If the word is always capitalized, it will be listed that way—e.g. "Friday"
If an element of a term is capitalized but other elements aren't, it will be listed that way—e.g., Parkinson's disease.
If some forms of the word are capitalized but others aren't, it will be listed in lower case and identify when it's capitalized—e.g. [b]swede[/b]: cap, a native or inhabitant of Sweden; (not cap), a type of rutaba.
Abbreviations (using full caps) will be listed in full caps—e.g., AIDS.
Formal titles preceded by prefixes (with, in such cases, do take hyphens) will be shown as they should be rendered—e.g., Neo-Expressionism; off-off-Broadway.
Dialogue in Fiction
You are not bound by dictionary spellings in dialogue rendering where you are trying to show voice patterns, regional dialect, or education levels of characters, e.g., "sheeet" for "shit" or "gawd" for "God" or "pul-eeze" for "please." What you should do, however, is to remain consistent for that character.
The POINT is that, just by learning a few tricks of being able to read guides to "best choice" word decisions in the dictionary—and by actually turning to the dictionary when there's the least bit of question that you are rendering a word or word combination correctly—you, as a Literotica author, can improve the presentation of your stories significantly, free up time and energy for the creative aspects of your writing, and improve your connection to and appreciation by the reader. And if you do this and your story plotlines and characterizations are good and your sex scenes hot, your story ratings most likely will go up and your "get an editor" comments most likely will go down.
These have been just few, basic pointers—although ones involving mistakes that run rampant in the Literotica story file—on reading the dictionary. If you want to become a master at it, charts and discussions on what the information given in a dictionary entry means—and can help you—can be found in the early pages of Webster's.