Grammar Gremlins: Here’s Smirking at You, Kid!

We all have our pet peeves as readers, words or phrases or habits that irritate us, occasionally to the point of throwing a book against a wall. One of mine is the overuse and/or misuse of the word smirk. As a reader I find the word irritating. As a writer I wonder if some authors have a firm grasp of its meaning.

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Smirk is not just a handy synonym for smile.

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My faithful old paper Webster’s defines the verb smirk as “to smile in a conceited, knowing, or annoyingly complacent way,” and current online dictionaries agree. Random House defines the verb as “to smile in an affected, smug, or offensively familiar way,” while Harper Collins defines the noun as “a smile expressing scorn, smugness, etc., rather than pleasure.”

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In short, as readers we might be inclined to dislike a character who smirks without a very good reason, and as writers we should be careful about using the word when we’re just looking for another word for grin.

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Just recently I ran across two examples of the word used well.

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From The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang: “He smirked his assholest smirk, but its annoyingness was softened by a show of strong white teeth.

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From David Handler’s The Man Who Cancelled Himself: “He had a smug, nasty little smirk on his face. I wanted to wipe it off. I would continue to want that the whole time I knew him.”

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In the interest of rounding up a few more peeves (the Gremlins want to keep them as pets), I asked a couple of writer friends what bothers them as readers.

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One said, “Books that read as though all the proofreading was done with spell check.” Spell check is great for what it does, but it doesn’t do enough. If something is a word, spell check won’t flag it. Spell check is dumb like that. It doesn’t know when it’s looking at the wrong word.

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I recently read a book in which “piece of mind” popped up. A character might want to give someone a piece of her mind, but in this case she was actually looking for peace of mind. I’ve seen pairs like proscribed and prescribed or proceeded and preceded confused more than once. Your computer is great at spotting misspelled words, but it takes a human to catch the misused words.

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Another friend had nearly wallbanged a book rather than fight through the layers of dialect. “An occasional nae or dinna is okay,” she said, “but there was so much dialect is this one that I hardly knew what they were talking about.”

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I can identify with that. Back in the day, a few decades ago, I read just about anything I could get my hands on by Poul Anderson, a highly regarded and influential science fiction author. I have several very old paper copies of favorite Anderson books still on my shelf, a bit yellowed and ragged by now. So when they started popping up on sale as ebooks, I downloaded two. Sigh. One made me wonder why I had once loved the book so much that I kept it for forty years. The other—well, the dialect in that one was so thick that I gave up after three pages. Maybe one day I’ll open it again and try to slide through those pages to the rest of the story. Or maybe I won’t. Maybe the dialect killed that one for me.

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Thinking about what annoys you as a reader might offer some good reminders of what not to do as a writer. Happy reading!

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