Wednesday, 7 May 2014

How Not to Write Like Austen: use of the word "want"

Try as we may, we can none of us imitate the genius of Jane Austen. We can, however, avoid a few linguistic anachronisms which might interrupt the tenuous suspension of the reader's disbelief in reading one's attempt to do so.

200 years ago, the word want had a slightly different meaning from the one it has now. It used to mean lack. If you would say, "for lack of something," Jane Austen would say, "for want of something." If you said, "he lacks something," Jane Austen would say, "he wants something."

This can sometimes be misleading if you are not aware of the distinction, because we often lack something we want. It gets a bit blurry in statements like, "all we want is a bit of cake to make us completely happy." This means that all that is missing is a bit of cake. If they were really hungry for some cake, they would use a word like wish or desire or long for. "How I long for a ball!"

I searched Jane Austen's complete works and I never found the word lack in any of them. I therefore conclude that she did not use it. Perhaps it was in use at the time, but I choose not to use it in my work because she didn't.

I find that making this substitution, of want for lack automatically makes a text sound more authentic. The same goes for replacing want with would like, or wish, etc. where appropriate.

Happy writing. Go eat some chocolate!

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice

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