Inconceivable Diction: an Intervention with Inigo Catoya

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I know, I know: he’s not a cat. Can we nonetheless agree that Mr. Montoya makes an excellent point about some of our ability to choose words in a way that you won’t lose your readers?

No?

Fine. Here’s Inigo Catoya:

Image You killed my father. Prepare to cuddle.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s say you’re writing about your cat–not a stretch, right? You’ve got the cat right in front of you, lounging decadently yet sophisticatedly on the windowsill, and all you want, with every iota of your being, is to communicate the grace and beauty you see before you. Your task now is to pick the right word.

Then this happens:

She walked into the room. She saw the cat. The cat looked directly at her with a smoldering green gaze.

Here’s how that works when I read it:

First sentence: cool. Second sentence: cool. Third sentence: ooh, smoldering! Nice word cho–what is “gaze” doing there?

A screeching halt, that’s what happens. No one is going to get carried away by your verbiage if they have to stop and process what’s happening. And this is what I imagine when I see “gaze” used that way:

Image

The gaze is the invisible line between your eyeballs and whatever you’re looking at. “Invisible” is the key word. Eyes can be blue; a gaze cannot be blue. (“Cannot” in this case meaning, “your editor will be imagining blue lasers beaming from your character’s eyes.” If this is your intention, by all means, carry on.) A gaze can, however, be intense or glassy or passionate or whatever. A gaze can also travel at will. “His eyes wandered across the room” is ambiguous at best and requires immediate medical attention at worst.

A look and a gaze are close relatives. Both of them work as verbs and nouns:

The cat looked at me incredulously.

The cat gave me an incredulous look.

Image

The cat gazed at me, murder in its eyes.

The cat’s gaze was murderous.

Image

What you see right before you die.

Even eye works this way:

The cats eyes were full of promises of what was to come.

The cat eyed me like he knew what he was doing.

Image

 

But when the thing you’re picturing in your mind is your character’s eyes, for the love of cats, say “eyes.” Don’t say “look” or “gaze” or something weird like “scan.” If you use “scan” as a noun, this is what I will picture:

Image

Cat scan. HEH HEH.

“But but but,” I can hear you saying, “I have to talk about my cat’s eyes for six sentences! If I keep using, ‘eyes’ every time, it’ll be really repetitive!”

First of all, if your paragraph is dwelling so heavily on one thing that you have to dig deep into the pits of the thesaurus to avoid repetition, one might choose to take it as a sign that something needs to change. Something that is not word choice. Second, there are still plenty of other things you can use to describe the thing on your cat’s face that it uses to watch birds out the window. Let’s use as our example a confused cat, because it turns out there are a lot of those on the Internet.

The cat’s face showed his confusion.

Image

…sideways.

Confusion radiated from the cat’s countenance.

Image

The cat looked severely confused and alarmed.

Image

IT’S GOT MY LEG. OH GOD.

There you have it: gaze and eyes (and some other stuff). Mess it up and Inigo Catoya will give you scans of withering scorn…

catoya

…or something.

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Greetings, Earthlings. | The Grammar Cat

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