Thursday, August 11, 2011


Do you run across any of the following when you're reading? How do you feel about them? Do they jump out at you or are we becoming so accustomed to crazy speech that we no longer pay attention?

Act naturally
Advanced BASIC
Same difference
Legally drunk
Living dead
Soft rock
"Now, then..."
Synthetic natural gas
Terribly pleased
Diet ice cream
Working vacation
Government organization
Clearly misunderstood
Twelve-ounce pound cake
Found missing
Genuine imitation
Good grief
Sanitary landfill
Silent scream
Small crowd
Passive aggression
Taped live
Definite maybe
Rap music
Resident alien
Almost exactly
Alone together
New classic
Sweet sorrow
Peace force
Plastic glasses
Pretty ugly
Exact estimate
Temporary tax increase.

The dictionary defines an oxymoron as a figure of speech in which words of opposite meaning or suggestion are used together such as wise fool, cruel kindness, to make haste slowly. I would hope that as writers we can communicate clearly, without garbling our prose in this way. Just one more thing to take our readers out of the dream and make them shake their heads in bewilderment.


David G. Woolley said...

It’s true that an oxymoronic phrase can make you look a little foolish. However, sometimes, combining words of opposite meaning are just what the author needs in order to be accurate.

Let’s say that your hero must cross a large, high security hospital room and remove the heroine before poison is injected into her veins by means of a timed injection device. There is little time left. However, the room is filled with motion sensors that require the hero move no faster than 1.3 feet per second. He's under time pressure to save the heroine before she is poisoned, but he's also restrained by the motion sensors. And the best description left to the author may be some sort of oxymoronic description arising from the paradoxical dictionary definition to: make haste slowly.

Oxymorons are invented in context. They are a paradox because they arise from a paradoxical setting like the one I described above. If you use an oxymoron in your writing, but you haven't created a paradoxical scene in which the oxymoron functions properly, the word choice will fall flat and you'll be left looking a bit foolish. But if you find yourself writing a paradoxical scene, then an oxymoron may be the perfect device to give your scene that extra punch.

David G. Woolley said...

As a follow-up. If you write a scene that is based in paradox, the chances are good that you'll come up with a new, inventive oxymoron. And if the oxymoron functions in a paradoxically descriptive way, as sort of an organic outgrowth of the story you're telling, there is an even better chance that your oxymoron will be used by other writers. Again, and again until your cherished creation becomes a cliche. Which, then, will turn your oxymoron into toxic waste. No one will ever touch a cliche.

Good luck with your oxymoronic scenes. They may be the very thing that gets your novel published.