Sunday, February 28, 2010

Word of the Week: Quizzical

I was asked this week to read over a short story by a fellow writer. It was a very affecting story of love and loss - all the good bits - in which he had used 'quizzical' not once, but twice. And I didn't hesitate a second before running my pen through both of them. Didn't even explain why - just left a comment in the margin after the second one: 'Aaaaargh! Here it is again!'

Don't worry, we're good enough friends that he didn't take offence at such unhelpful censoring. But he did defend his use of the word. 'What's wrong with it? It perfectly describes the look she (his main character) had.' I have to concede he's right. According to the old ACOD (Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary):

'quizzical adj. 1 expressing or done with mild or amused perplexity. 2 strange; comical.'

The situation in his story definitely demanded a mildly perplexed look from his MC. So I was forced to confront my prejudice against the word. It wasn't because it was inappropriate or misused. It was a little bit because it reminds me of Enid Blyton books,* but mostly it's because it's such an ugly word!

Yes, as far as quizzical is concerned, it's a question of form over function. It sticks out like a sore thumb. Those two 'z's combined with the 'q'. Awful. Outside of a game of Scrabble, I never want to see them in any word in front of me.

But is that reason enough to scribble it out? Surely it's hard enough choosing the best word to use without worrying about whether its physical form is going to be off-putting to sensitive readers like me.

I'm inclined to think with words like 'quizzical', using it once is ok (Oh, if you must) but any more than that is distracting. And I mean once in a whole novel. Ok, maybe twice.

*I love Enid Blyton's books, but her prose isn't quite suited to contemporary Australian short stories!


  1. Hi

    I'm quite partial to quizzical. It's kind of a word that shouldn't make sense but does. Like it's really a noun but add the "ical" et voila! An adjective. LOL! And it's such an easy word to spell because it does what it says on the tin - but only if you remember the extra "z" - what's all that about?!?! LOL!

    Mind you, perhaps "perplexed" would have been a different word to use, she asked with a quizzical look on her face.


    I'm off now to get lashings of ginger beer and cake.

    Take care

  2. Oh, I like perplexed. Another favourite is 'nonplussed'. And now that I think about it, I might like quizzical more if it had one less 'z'. Quizical.

    Enjoy your lashings of ginger beer and cake. Sounds like a great way to spend a Sunday!

  3. I think it's better sometimes to use an ordinary word rather than a more accurate but unusual word just because the unusual word takes the reader out of the story.
    We were once set an assignment in school to write a short story in the style of Enid Blyton. It was a fun exercise, worth trying if you've got a lot of "quizzical"s to get out of your system.

  4. I agree, I think ordinary words are the way to go about 95% of the time, though I suppose it depends on voice or POV as well.

    Short story in the style of Enid Blyton! I think that would be really fun..

    'I say, Julian, do I look perplexed or nonplussed to you?'
    Julian opened a bottle of ginger pop and gave Dick a quizzical look...

    Sorry, it's late here.

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  6. My first piece of spam!

    Sorry, I don't give free advertising on this blog. Not unless I a) know you, and b) like you.

  7. If its good enough for Jane Austen (or maybe just the movie version script writers?) its good enough for me. Always makes me think of Mr Darcy anyway which is no bad thing

  8. No, not a bad thing at all!

    The word I remember most from that BBC series of P&P is 'insufferable'.