table, teapot, plates, candle

Sip, Shuffle, and Grunt: Word Choice Dilemmas

The characters in my novels are a sociable lot. They often discuss things over meals or drinks. That gives them something to do besides talk and furnishes me (the Writer) with opportunities for actions to avoid the dreaded “talking heads.”

It also brings up a few minor conundrums that are perfect examples of Writer’s Brain at Work. As I create these scenes of conviviality, I often struggle with word choices. There aren’t enough useful words for certain actions, and a bewildering abundance for others. They have to be ordinary words, not flashy ones that would draw too much attention to minor actions.

Drinking, for example. The word used to describe taking in liquid has to fit the situation and the beverage. Whether it’s water, tea, coffee, beer, wine, or spirits, the choices are pretty much limited to the following: sip, drink, or gulp (including the variations involving “take,” as in: took a sip/drink/gulp). Context determines which word is most appropriate. Extremes are easier than ordinary situations. If someone is gulping whisky or vodka, there should be a reason. A character who has reached water after a thirsty slog through a desert isn’t likely to stop at sipping. I wish there was a verb other than “drink” for situations where “sip” is too prissy and “gulp” too vulgar. Synonyms such as “imbibe” or “quaff” are pretentious and awkward. Other words, such as slurp, swig, or guzzle, are wonderful but limited.

Then there’s the problem of how to convey something we all do while talking, a nonverbal sound that indicates mild disapproval of what has just been said. It’s sometimes rendered as “Hmph.” Verbs include the following: snort, grunt, or huff. Which to use depends on the character; for some, snorting or grunting is entirely appropriate, but I can’t bring myself to apply these words to characters who simply wouldn’t do that. “Huff” is pretty much the only choice for them, along with the aforementioned “Hmph,” or “made a disapproving sound,” which is clunky. There’s also “harrumph,” but it’s another one that’s okay for an older man but not for a nice young lady or mannerly middle-aged woman. “Sniff,” on the other hand, might just work. Whichever of them is used, I suspect it should not be treated as a dialogue tag, but as a discrete action.

Along with imbibing liquids and chewing food, characters make gestures while talking. Cutlery is useful in these situations; I’ve had characters make rhetorical gestures with forks, tap spoons to emphasize a point, or even hold knives as though wanting to use them as weapons. But sometimes a person just waves a hand, and that’s where I have a problem. Should they wave a hand, or his (her) hand? The latter, as in “Bob waved his hand,” to me always sounds like Bob has only one such appendage. Okay, so how about “Bob waved his right hand”? That implies that there’s a left to go with it, but also puts unnecessary emphasis on “right.” After going around this mulberry bush a few times, I settle on “a hand,” and berate myself for overthinking. Whose hand but his own would Bob wave, after all? (I’m almost embarrassed to admit how much mental energy I’ve expended on this non-problem.)

Characters move around all the time. There are many action verbs. But sometimes, the movement from point A to point B doesn’t call for a splashy verb, such as “leap,” “saunter,” or “shuffle.” Sometimes “walk” is just fine, as in “I walked to work in the rain.” Most days, an ordinary person wouldn’t amble, strut, or stride to work. Even the modest word that is the past tense of “go,” i.e., “went,” has a place. “On Thursday, Bob went to the hospital for surgery.” An expressive word is unnecessary here, unless the way Bob got to the hospital is the point of the sentence, not the fact that he’s going to have surgery. So why make the poor guy hobble, trot, or saunter? All right, that’s enough!

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To sum up, whatever word is chosen for an action, it should suit the situation and the character. A modest, plain word may be le mot juste, so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

What about you, fellow writers? Do you ever dither over word choices? Do you ever overthink them?

Featured image by JamesDeMers from Pixabay