Using Portmanteaus in Writing

What is a portmanteau and why should you care? The first portmanteau I remember was motel. Originally, it blended the words hotel and motorist, hence a motorist’s hotel. Motel. Now motel is an accepted word found in all dictionaries. My favorite was probably cheeseburger, blending cheese and hamburger. The word smog, blending smoke and fog, has been around as long as I have (long time!). TV cook Rachael Ray created her own portmanteau of stoup (thicker than soup but thinner than stew). Designer dog breed names are portmanteaus: cock-a-poo, labradoodle, puggle, etc.

There are lists of portmanteaus. If you’re interested, do a search. What concerns us as authors is the use of portmanteaus in our writing. Historical fiction writers especially need to know the origins of any portmanteau before using it. The origins might out-date the setting of your story. For instance, in the early 1970s, ranchers began breeding cattle with bison to produce beefalo. Larry McMurtry knew better than to have Gus and Call mention beefalo, motels, or frenemy in his Pulitzer-award-winning novel Lonesome Dove. Call and Gus definitely didn’t have a bromance

If your character chortles, he or she must live in a time after Lewis Carrol, who created the word from snort and chuckle. Not to be snarky, but did you know snark is a portmanteau of snide remark?

As always, when in doubt look it up. Don’t guesstimate.*

*From guess and estimate



Remember my rant about “like” as a dialog tag? 

The following is not an example of a dialog tag and should never be used in writing (And I wish it was never used. Period!):

“She was like, ‘why am I here?’ and I’m like “you’re the bridesmaid. You have to help pick out the dress.’ And she’s like, ‘It’s your wedding. Pick what you want.’ and I’m like, ‘It’s your dress. I want your input.’ And she’s like, “Girl, it’s not as if I’ll ever wear it again. I have, like, a dozen bridesmaids’ dresses hanging in my closet now that I wore one time.’”

Yuck! I definitely don’t like reading this passage of dialog!

My advice works if you’re writing formal fiction or a business document, but what about chick lit? (Or any contemporary fiction aimed at the younger adult population?) Well, my friend, my advice is out the window. 

In fiction writing, you write what works. Stream of consciousness, first person, bad grammar, popular slang, whatever, as long as you do so intentionally.

The Grammar Cop may give you a warning, but she won’t cite you for a grammar infraction if said infraction fits the voice of your character or story.

However, if you want to write formal and proper dialog, please review my post from two years ago about dialog tags.

Are Reticent and Reluctant Synonyms?

Recent posts have been about misused and misunderstood words, inspired by the American Heritage Dictionaries* editors.Here’s another to add to your vocabulary: reticent and reluctant.

Are reticent and reluctant synonyms? Well…yes and no. Remember my rant about decimate? The term that technically refers to removing one/tenth of a given population has evolved in usage as a synonym for annihilate. Usage has confused the word reticent, too.

Reticent people are reserved, especially among strangers. They may be reluctant to talk about themselves, but that doesn’t make them reluctant in all things.

So don’t apply the adjective reticent when you mean reluctant. I am not reticent, but I’m reluctant to gamble large amounts of money in a casino.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention remiss, another word often confused with reluctant. Remiss means negligent or careless. If you’re remiss in your job duties, it may be because you’re reluctant to perform the work, but the two words aren’t synonymous. 

*Houghton Mifflin Books, 2004:100 words almost everyone confuses & misuses

Incredulous Grammar Cop Is Nauseated

If you’re one of the millions of viewers who watch BIG BANG THEORY, you’ve been treated to Sheldon Cooper’s numerous grammar lectures. One of my favorites is about nauseous versus nauseated. He says people often say they’re nauseous when they mean they’re nauseated.

I have a similar pet peeve with incredible versus incredulous. Do you use incredulous correctly?

Wrong: She felt incredulous guilt for her father’s death.

Correct: She felt incredible guilt for her father’s death.

Both are adjectives. Incredible means implausible or extraordinary. Incredulous means disbelieving or skeptical. A trick that helps me is substituting the synonym skeptical. If the synonym makes no sense, I’ve used incredulous incorrectly. (e.g. Skeptical grammar cop is nauseated)

Wrong:  That news story is simply incredulous.(You wouldn’t write That news story is simply skeptical.)

Correct: He read the news story, incredulous that anyone would believe such nonsense.

The bottom line: Use incredulous sparingly and never when you should use incredible.

Bonus: If you don’t watch BIG BANG THEORY, nauseated means you feel as if you might vomit. Nauseous means to induce nausea. Again, nauseous is seldom used and rarely used correctly. Just remember if you feel icky, you’re nauseated. If your body odor makes those around you feel icky, you’re nauseous. 😉

Watch That Slang

This post is less about grammar and more about style. 

Remember the 1985 movie Back to the Future? Marty McFly repeatedly says “heavy,” 1980s slang for an intense situation, and Emmett (Doc) doesn’t understand. He questions Marty about problems with weightiness. Great Scott! Heavy as slang in 1955 is anachronistic.

Writers of historical fiction should exercise caution in the use of slang. Readers will catch those anachronisms in a heartbeat, just as Doc did in Back to the Future. Keep in mind you don’t want anything to distract your reader from your story. When it comes to writing dialog, do your research!

Examples I’ve come across:

  • The old west ego. If you’re setting your Western in a time that predates Freud, don’t use the term ego when you mean arrogance. Ego didn’t exist until Freud coined the word in 1920.
  • Eye candy or stud muffin. Those terms are late twentieth century and have no place in earlier settings. I recently read a Word War II era romance that described a soldier as “eye candy.” That’s a no-no.
  • Fashion statement  Too modern to be spoken in most historicals. 
  • Don’t go there!  If your historical character is using the expression “don’t go there” (meaning, that subject is off-limits), he better be living in the 1990s or later. For that matter, off-limits is fairly modern, so be careful. Other expressions that are too modern to appear in historicals include get over it, give me a break, and go figure.
  • Don’t give me any flak (or flack). Flak (also spelled flack) is anti-aircraft artillery. The term now means a critical or hostile reception or reaction, but it evolved from the military term. If your historical story predates military aircraft, don’t give your characters any flak.
  • Life in the fast lane. An expression evolved from motorists using divided, multi-lane highways should not appear in a story predating divided, multi-lane highways. 
  • Stuck in the groove or his needle is stuck. This term originated with the first phonograph record and died with digital recordings and downloads. Use this slang with care.

What other anachronisms have you discovered in historical novels or movies?

Clinch or Clench

When it comes to words I thought I knew but didn’t, clinch / clench heads the list. When do you use clench and when do you use clinch? Or is it the same word with varied spelling, like dialog and dialogue?

I consulted an old dictionary. Sure enough, under clench it said [See CLINCH]. Does that mean they originally meant the same thing? The definitions are similar but neither word is listed as a synonym for the other. So I did additional research and, as with so many words in our language, usage has modified the definitions.

Clench means to hold or grasp firmly. She clenched the steering wheel until her knuckles whitened.

Clinch means to confirm. His offer clinched the deal. Except…yes, you knew there’d be exceptions. Clinch in boxing means to hold firmly with one or both arms around the body.

Don’t expect any help from SpellCheck. It accepts either spelling. Grammar helpers accept either usage.

The only advice I give you with absolute certainty concerning clinch and clench is BE CONSISTENT within your work.

Dialog Punctuation and Style

Last month I posted about the wrong way to punctuate and format dialog. This post is about the right way. (FYI I’m addressing the American rules for dialog; the British have different rules for formatting dialogue.)

With tongue firmly in cheek, let’s start with these examples:

“I can’t believe I ate that whole pineapple!” Bob said, dolefully.
“I haven’t caught a fish all day,” Mike said, without debate.
“I won’t let a stupid flat tire let me down,” Steve said, with despair.
“I keep banging my head on things,” Marty said, bashfully.
“That is the second time my teacher changed my grade,” Donna remarked.
“The fur is falling out of that mink coat,” Steven inferred.
“That’s the second electric shock that I’ve gotten today,” Stew said, revolted.
“I’ll just have to send that telegram again,” Samuel said, remorsefully.
“I’ve been sick and lost a lot of weight,” Rachel expounded.

These are examples of dialog tags formatted correctly (I do hope you’ll resist the adverbs ☺). What the character says is within quotation marks, including punctuation. But what about dialog within dialog? Or interrupted speech? Relax. There are rules for formatting complex dialog issues, too. Here are a few basics:

  • If you’re switching speakers, you need a new paragraph. However, a line of dialogue within a paragraph of narrative is not technically wrong. Use your judgment. You don’t want an important speech lost in a lengthy passage of description. When in doubt, err on the side of what printers call “white space.” It makes your text more readable.
  • Interrupted speech is formatted with the em dash or double hyphen; Trailing speech is formatted with three periods.
  • A tag follows a comma (or question mark or exclamation point) with he said or she said. You’ll see hundreds of variations of this tag, everything from “he responded” to “she answered” to “she replied.” What you shouldn’t see is anything that’s physically impossible or implausible, such as “she laughed” or “he snorted.” You can’t laugh or snort words. If you want your speaker laughing or snorting, fine. Make it a sentence of its own.
  • A statement of action (complete sentence) is not a tag and should not be preceded by a comma.
  • Double quotation marks surround the entire speech, including punctuation. Single quotation marks are for speech-within-a-speech. For instance, “How dare he call me ‘Queen Victoria!'”

Remember, dialog is a good way to move the story, as long as you don’t fall into the “As you know, Bob” trap. That’s a rookie mistake that goes something like this:

“I can’t believe I ate all the pineapple!”
“As you know, Bob, your father, your grandfather, and your great-grandfather owned pineapple plantations. It’s natural you’d overindulge.”
Bob huffed an impatient breath. “You’d think I’d know how to control myself.”
“You’ve had a rough year, remember? You’re going through a particularly nasty divorce, which has been tabloid fodder all year.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”

Exactly! Tell Bob something he doesn’t know, not a bunch of backstory for the reader’s benefit. Use dialog to reveal character values and traits, not backstory the character already knows.

Any other dialog issues challenging your writing? Leave me a comment.