Sensual vs. Sensuous

Here is a superb explanation from http://grammar.about.com/od/alightersideofwriting/a/sensualgloss.htm of the distinction between two words I still confuse (no matter how many times I watch the supermarket scene from Animal House).   Knowing the history of the two words helps.   I stumbled across this article  today while double-checking its usage for a story I am writing.

After reading this it occurred to me that a good mnemonic for the difference would be to remember that sensual and sexual both end in -ual.  As a matter of fact, the only difference in pronunciation is that one has an x (a ks sound) and the other has ns.

The adjective sensual means affecting or gratifying the physical senses, especially in a sexual way.

Sensuous means pleasing to the senses, especially those involved in aesthetic pleasure, as of art or music.

But as explained in the usage notes below, this fine distinction is often overlooked.

Examples:

  • “If one wants another only for some self-satisfaction, usually in the form of sensual pleasure, that wrong desire takes the form of lust rather than love.” (Mortimer Adler)
  •  Her first book of poems included several sensuous descriptions of flowers.

Usage Notes:

  • “The controversial 1969 bestseller The Sensuous Woman would have been more accurately titled The Sensual Woman because its explicit subject matter concerns the unabashed gratification of sexual desire.”Here’s how you can keep the two words straight. If you mean lovely, pleasurable, or experienced through the senses, use sensuous; if you mean self-gratifying or pertaining to physical desires, use sensual. Sensuous thoughts have a pleasant effect on your senses as well as your mind. Sensual thoughts are erotic, sexually arousing, maybe even lewd.”
    (Charles Harrington Elster, Verbal Advantage: Ten Easy Steps to a Powerful Vocabulary. Random House, 2009)

 

  • The Origins of Sensuous
    Sensuous is an interesting word. The OED says it was apparently invented by [John] Milton, because he wanted to avoid the sexual connotations of the word sensual (1641).

    “The OED cannot find any evidence of the use of the word by any other writer for 173 years, not until [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge:

    Thus, to express in one word what belongs to the senses, or the recipient and more passive faculty of the soul, I have reintroduced the word sensuous, used, among many others of our elder writers, by Milton. (Coleridge, “Principles of General Criticism,” in Farley’s Bristol Journal, August 1814)

    “Coleridge put the word into ordinary circulation–and almost immediately it began to pick up those old sexual connotations that Milton and Coleridge wanted to avoid.”
    (Jim Quinn, American Tongue and Cheek, Pantheon Books, 1980)

 

  •  Overlapping Meanings“The consensus of the commentators, from Vizetelly 1906 to the present, is that sensuous emphasizes aesthetic pleasure while sensual emphasizes gratification or indulgence of the physical appetites.”The distinction is true enough within one range of meanings, and it is worth remembering. The difficulty is that both words have more than one sense, and they tend often to occur in contexts where the distinction between them is not as clear cut as the commentators would like it to be.”(Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, 1994)

     

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Metaphors

Ernest Hemingway Thought I do not know who the creator of this work is, I must ask that you respect their copyright.

Ernest Hemingway
Thought I do not know who the creator of this work is, I must ask that you respect their copyright.

The primary influences on my writing have always been Hemingway and Fitzgerald.  Based on what I have read, neither was a fan of metaphors.  Somewhere in the back of my mind I seem to recall Hemingway once calling metaphors “the weakest of animals” or “the “weakest of literary devices” or something like that (I have searched for this quote and haven’t found it yet).  Ergo, I have always shied away from metaphors and I have found that it has helped my writing immensely by forcing me to be creative in my comparisons and analogies.   While searching in vain for Hemingway’s quotation on metaphors tonight, I ran across this quotation from George Orwell which makes a few good points:

 “By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images dash [sic] … it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking.”

Metaphors are a bridge to another idea;  they take the reader onto a tangent.  If I say, “The hunter stumbled through the woods like a wounded bear,”  I am shifting the reader’s visual image from that of the hunter to that of a bear.  Yes, I give the reader a concise description of how the hunter was stumbling, and the reader can probably visualize the stumbling rather accurately, but wouldn’t the reader become more involved with the hunter and be able to visualize the scene more precisely if the hunter is described as if he were a wounded bear stumbling.  Wouldn’t it also be a bit more of an intriguing psychological puzzle for the reader to solve and come to his own sudden epiphany of something like “Oh, he’s moving like a wounded bear!”   For example:

The hunter, half-dazed from a blow to the head, his dark eyes fixed on some point on the dim horizon, staggered back and forth, bumping into trees, sometimes leaning against them to keep from collapsing into the hard-packed snow, dropping to one knee then rising slowly, painfully catching his breath, limping, often groaning, sometimes bellowing out in a desperate hope that someone passing through the distant shadows might come to his aid.

Isn’t that more dramatic?  Doesn’t that involve the reader more into the actions and situation of the main character?  Yes, it’s considerably longer, but now the reader can visualize precisely the hunter’s agonizing movements.  Now, instead of having to visualize a bear, all attention is focused entirely on visualizing the hunter.   Now you are forced to be creative, to use something other than Orwell’s “stale metaphors, similes and idioms” and have to use something more dynamic.  No one can accuse you of not really thinking or of being lazy in your descriptions.

In short, if I want to compare two objects, I describe one using the characteristics and attributes of the other.  If I have done it well, the reader will see the likeness between the two, but will still remained focused, and maybe even more intensely, on the subject.

Painting of a Dog by Kim Duryang Sapsalgae, 1743

Painting of a Dog
by Kim Duryang Sapsalgae, 1743

I have used this method for some time now, and I believe it has strengthened my works considerably.

For more on this method of describing objects,  see my article on the Tao of Writing Part 3: Talking about Dogs.

Thoughts?  Comments?

Sensual vs. Sensuous

100_1736Here is a superb explanation from http://grammar.about.com/od/alightersideofwriting/a/sensualgloss.htm of the distinction between two words I still confuse (no matter how many times I watch the supermarket scene from Animal House).   Knowing the history of the two words helps.   I stumbled across this article  today while double-checking its usage for a story I am writing.

After reading this it occurred to me that a good mnemonic for the difference would be to remember that sensual and sexual both end in -ual.  As a matter of fact, the only difference in pronunciation is that one has an x (a ks sound) and the other has ns.

 

The adjective sensual means affecting or gratifying the physical senses, especially in a sexual way.

Sensuous means pleasing to the senses, especially those involved in aesthetic pleasure, as of art or music.

But as explained in the usage notes below, this fine distinction is often overlooked.

Examples:

  • “If one wants another only for some self-satisfaction, usually in the form of sensual pleasure, that wrong desire takes the form of lust rather than love.” (Mortimer Adler)
  •  Her first book of poems included several sensuous descriptions of flowers.

Usage Notes:

  • “The controversial 1969 bestseller The Sensuous Woman would have been more accurately titled The Sensual Woman because its explicit subject matter concerns the unabashed gratification of sexual desire.

    “Here’s how you can keep the two words straight. If you mean lovely, pleasurable, or experienced through the senses, use sensuous; if you mean self-gratifying or pertaining to physical desires, use sensual. Sensuous thoughts have a pleasant effect on your senses as well as your mind. Sensual thoughts are erotic, sexually arousing, maybe even lewd.”
    (Charles Harrington Elster, Verbal Advantage: Ten Easy Steps to a Powerful Vocabulary. Random House, 2009)

 

  • The Origins of Sensuous
    Sensuous is an interesting word. The OED says it was apparently invented by [John] Milton, because he wanted to avoid the sexual connotations of the word sensual (1641).

    “The OED cannot find any evidence of the use of the word by any other writer for 173 years, not until [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge:

    Thus, to express in one word what belongs to the senses, or the recipient and more passive faculty of the soul, I have reintroduced the word sensuous, used, among many others of our elder writers, by Milton. (Coleridge, “Principles of General Criticism,” in Farley’s Bristol Journal, August 1814)

    “Coleridge put the word into ordinary circulation–and almost immediately it began to pick up those old sexual connotations that Milton and Coleridge wanted to avoid.”
    (Jim Quinn, American Tongue and Cheek, Pantheon Books, 1980)

 

  •  Overlapping Meanings“The consensus of the commentators, from Vizetelly 1906 to the present, is that sensuous emphasizes aesthetic pleasure while sensual emphasizes gratification or indulgence of the physical appetites.”The distinction is true enough within one range of meanings, and it is worth remembering. The difficulty is that both words have more than one sense, and they tend often to occur in contexts where the distinction between them is not as clear cut as the commentators would like it to be.”(Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, 1994)

Thoughts on Voice

The blogger on Padre Island, January, 2011.

The blogger on Padre Island, January, 2011.

I just want to post a few quick thoughts for the night on the topic of voice in narration versus narration in dialogue.   The opinions I state here may change with time as I learn more of the art of writing, but these are my feelings for now.

Unless there is a specific reason to give the narrator an accent or flaws in his speech, the narrator’s grammar and speaking should be perfect.  To my mind, this establishes a baseline against which the characters’ voices can be heard.  It also establishes the author’s expertise and shows that the author knows what he/she is doing with regards to the language.   If the narrator’s speech is perfect, then any accents or flaws or flourishes in the characters’ speech can be seen more distinctly.  I believe the narrator’s voice (unless there is a specific reason for otherwise) should be simple, clear, and free from anything that might draw away the reader’s attention from the storyline.  When I read, I am very focused on understanding the interaction of the characters, their solutions to problems and situations in the story, how the plot is developing and so forth.  If the narration is overly ornate or full of irregularities or intricate devices and I have to resort to a dictionary to understand what is happening, my reading is interrupted, my concentration is broken, and my enjoyment of the story is diminished.

On the other hand, once the narrative baseline has been established, I can play with the character’s speaking styles in any number of ways and they will (hopefully) be more obvious because they stand in contrast to the narration.  Again, unless a specific reason exists for doing otherwise, their voices should be clear and easy to understand.  An example of this might  be the case of a scientist, whose complex mind is shown by his use of scientific jargon and overly complex sentences.   An example at the other end of the spectrum might be an illiterate bumpkin, who uses very simple words, bad grammar, and frequent vulgarities.   Of course, you might also show that there is a hidden side to the character by their speech patterns.  Suppose that the bumpkin mentioned above every now and then showed that there was more to him than met the eye by using scientific jargon or by having exceptional command of English.

I also like to toy with being able to distinguish characters by speech patterns and jargon.  A sailor might use a lot of nautical terminology and Navy slang, but the reader might also be able to identify him through repeated use of a certain term.  I used to have a friend that used the word “Whatever!” very frequently.  His speech would be very easy to pick out in a dialogue of several people, even if the narrator did not state specifically who was speaking.

Thoughts?  Comments?

Dictionary.com – Seven Spooky Words

A mock-up of Lovecraft's fictional Necronomicon

A mock-up of Lovecraft’s fictional Necronomicon

Here are a few more words for your horror vocabulary:  “Seven Spooky Words for Halloween”  at Dictionary.com – Free Online English Dictionary.

I apologize for the glitch, but apparently you cannot get to the Seven Spooky Words without having to flip through the Monsters of Literature and Folklore slide show.   Both slide shows are enjoyable and quick, so I recommend visiting both anyway.

“The Most Common Mistakes in English Usage”

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Unfortunately, I have been so busy lately that I have not had very much time to write or to post anything new of any substance.   However, to polish my writing skills I have been perusing The Most Common Mistakes in English Usage by Thomas Berry during some of my few free moments.  Although the book is nearly ancient by today’s standards (first copyrighted in 1961) and some of the advice is certainly well behind the times, I find it is still quite a useful reference, because much of the advice focuses on the exact meaning of words as well as the basics of English.

Unless you are a grammar aficianado, the book is by no means an exciting read, and I would not call it entertaining, but it can pique one’s interest with discussions of the subtleties in the meanings of common words, words I normally take for granted.  One word discussed that is undoubtedly used by writers of horror frequently is “sadistic”.  In his chapter “Words Commonly Misused” Professor Berry notes:

“The word ‘sadistic” refers to a form of sexual perversion.  Only careless writers and speakers use it to mean ‘strong interest in gory details’.”

Whether you agree with his assessment or not, it should be enough to pique one’s interest enough to ask yourself if you are using the nuances of the word to your advantage.

Another assessment I found interesting was that of “livid”.  According to Professor Berry:

“The word ‘livid’ means ‘a bluish color,’ ‘of the color of lead’, or the ‘black and blue coloring of flesh that has received a contusion’.  This word is commonly used to mean other colors. Also, the word ‘livid’ is absolute and consequently, one object cannot be ‘more livid’ than another.”

Other bits of sage advice that I find useful in giving my writing a poetic undercurrent concerns positioning modifiers in a sequence either by length or by logical order.

“Whenever possible, modifiers should be arranged according to length, with the shortest preceding the others.

Uneven:  It was a battered, worn, broken desk.

Better:  It was a worn, broken, battered desk. “

And

“Modifiers should always be arranged in a logical sequence.

Wrong:  As the days wore on, he became tired, bored, and exhausted.  (Wrong because he probably became bored before he became tired.)

Right:  As the days wore on, he became bored, tired, and exhausted.

Even if Professor Berry’s advice or attitudes may be out of date or not in line with current thinking, I recommend reading The Most Common Mistakes in English Usage if for no other reason than just to start the creative juices flowing and to start one thinking about how to maximize the use of the subtleties of grammar and meaning to their fullest effects.

Thoughts?  Comments?

Whose skill with grammar do you admire most?

Most writers think of modeling their style after that of a famous writer.   A large part of any writer’s style is his use of grammar.   For example,  Hemingway’s lean, muscular, sparse, style is well-known.  His use of punctuation (which I am including under grammar) is also spare, using and where most writers would use commas in a rhetorical technique known as syndeton.    Whereas Hemingway’s minimalist approach is masterful, somewhere in the middle of the scale is Mario Puzo (The Godfather) whose mediocre grammar skills often show up in comma splices and dangling prepositions.   The writer I consider a master of both style and grammar is F.Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby).

My question to you is:  whom do you consider to be a master grammarian/stylist?