An American Editor

October 16, 2013

On Language: What Did He Feel When He Felt?

Filed under: On Language — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
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As an editor, I am concerned with how words are used. It is not that I do not fall into the informal usage trap myself; rather, it is informality has its place and whether or not to accept informal usage depends on context and audience.

Consider the use and misuse of felt and feel as substitutes for thought and think. When I read “he felt,” the first question that comes to mind is, “What did he feel with his hands?” Usually that question is quickly dismissed because the context clearly indicates that what was meant was “he thought.” But if you mean think/thought, why not use think/thought?

I view feel as a weak version of think, almost as an indicator that the person who is feeling isn’t really thinking, but is doing something else which is not explained. Unfortunately, feel replaces think in most authors’ writing.

Some types of writing are less formal than others and can withstand the substitution of feel for think. Feel is particularly apt in dialogue, because dialogue mimics how we speak and most speech is informal. Speech (and thus dialogue) can turn toward informality because it relies on other clues to spread the message.

In contrast, more formal writing, especially science, technical, and medical writing, relies on word choice to both convey and firm the message. There are no gestures that accompany the writing that serve to enforce intent and meaning. Consequently, in more formal writing, the difference between feel and think is important.

When I read in a medical text, for example, that the author feels something is true, I interpret that as meaning the author hopes it is true but only has vague knowledge regarding whether it is true. As always, the ultimate question boils down to one of clarity: Does the use of feel accurately convey what is meant?

The argument can be made that feel has become synonymous with think, both in meaning and strength, in today’s usage. Yet, I’m not convinced that is true. Besides, feel serves other meanings. Consider the sentence, “Jim feels blue today.” We cannot substitute thinks for feels (“Jim thinks blue today”) because doing so completely changes the meaning.

Similarly, if the sentence is “Jim thinks today is Tuesday,” substituting feels for thinks would change the sense of the sentence, if not the meaning. It also would raise a variation of the question with which we started: How does one feel that today is Tuesday?

The usual answer is to see what the dictionary says. Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merrriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) include think and believe as meanings for feel, although not as one of the top two definitions (they are fifth and fourth, respectively). Both dictionaries are reflecting a common usage; that is, both are taking a descriptive approach rather than a prescriptive approach to word usage.

That these dictionaries include such a definition invites continuing substitution of feel for think and believe. If the role of the editor is to help an author make crystal clear what the author intends to say, then recognizing that think and believe are not among the first two definitions of feel should lead an editor to use the correct word and not just accept that common usage has devolved so far that at some level feel, think, and believe are wholly synonymous when, in fact, there are meaningful shades of difference.

Authors, too, need to think about use of feel when they mean think. Granted, in fiction the rules are looser and there is less compulsion to choose between feel and think, but even with that looseness, the choice should be thought about. Choosing the right word can be the difference between humdrum and forceful writing.

Feel invokes a sense of intuitiveness whereas think invokes a sense of decisiveness. Consequently, the choice of word imparts the author’s sense of authority. Feel sends a message of less authoritativeness, whereas think sends a message of greater authoritativeness.

In formal writing that sense of authoritativeness is important. Readers want to believe that the author of a medical tome knows what he is writing about or that when an historian draws a conclusion that she is basing it on the strength of facts, not a feeling. The choice of word makes a difference in the strength of the message conveyed to the reader.

The message strength is less important in fiction than in nonfiction, but that doesn’t mean it should be discounted. As has been discussed many times on An American Editor, clarity of meaning and intent is as important in fiction as in nonfiction. Consequently, all authors and editors need to think about word choice, with the understanding that greater laxity is permitted in fiction than in nonfiction.

If there is a concern that by changing a word the editor may also be changing the author’s tone, then the correct course is to query. In this instance, the query should not only be about the word choice, but should also inquire about whether the tone presented is the tone the author wants presented considering the subject matter and audience.

Do you change or query weak word choices that could be made stronger?

4 Comments »

  1. I’m sure I’m guilty of this, but doesn’t feel also relate to feelings? That’s the context I would use it in

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    Comment by Vicki — October 16, 2013 @ 4:40 am | Reply

    • Yes, it does, and feel/feeling is appropriate when referring to an emotional state/response. The problem is when it is used as a substitute for think/thinking.

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      Comment by americaneditor — October 16, 2013 @ 5:59 am | Reply

      • I am not sure I entirely agree with you on this, americaneditor. The brain is also a physical organ, and the process of thinking can also, to some degree, be ‘felt’… I’m not sure that the division between the mental and the physical is so clear cut. I understand your reasoning, but I think the language is less rich if we stick so rigidly to that path. I may be wrong, but that’s my ‘gut feeling’.

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        Comment by Ewan Hughes Army — October 18, 2013 @ 7:22 am | Reply

  2. It also depends on the audience. An international audience and one for those who’s abilities in English range from the barely sufficient to the very proficient may well find a formal English easiest to understand. Internationally, people still learn a very formal English that is more heavily based on British English just as we learn very formal forms of foreign languages. Also native English speakers of other English-speaking countries, the varieties of informal English are legion and not commonly well-understood amongst themselves. Time has a way of changing the informal versions of a language.

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    Comment by Martyn — October 16, 2013 @ 11:20 am | Reply


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