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Is there any popular wisdom on the word "seem"?

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I've just started noticing this word a lot in books. Something about it rubs me the wrong way. For example, I read a book where the following happened

I stumbled to the ground and hit my head. I got back up. The walls and floors seemed to be moving

That struck me as wrong; because since the character is experiencing it, for them the walls don't seem to be moving, they are moving.

I feel like that passage above would be much better if it was rewrote as

I stumbled to the ground and hit my head. I got back up. The walls and floors started to move

It feels more active and definite, and I don't think anyones going to think that the walls and floors are literally moving

There's been many more times when an author has used the word "seem" and it's irked me. The word just feels kind of vague

I'm just wondering if this is just personal preference, or if there is some popular wisdom regarding the word. A quick google didn't bring up anything

Why should this post be closed?

This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/q/47664. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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It's a word that is useful in maintaining viewpoint. Bob felt a great weight is in Bob's viewpoint. Sally seemed to feel a great weight is not in Sally's viewpoint. It is a very, very useful word to maintain viewpoint to Bob (or whomever) in limited perspective. DPT 3 months ago

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Your example is first-person narration in the past tense. That is, your narrator is reporting events that previously happened.

At the time of the events, the narrator thought the walls were moving -- no "seemed" about it. But at the time of the narration, the narrator (presumably) realizes that this was an illusion, and so reports that.

Whether to used "seemed" or "felt" or any other meta-commentary depends on the proximity of the narration to the event. For example, if your narration is presented via diary entries or letters, the perspective should be from the time those letters are written in the plot. A narrator could be under an incorrect impression (granted, more likely about others' feelings or motives than about ambulatory walls) for an extended period of time, and you could show the narrator's changing understanding through the way those entries are written. But that doesn't apply to a narrative structure where the narration starts after the events of the story have concluded.

It's uncommon, but I've seen present-tense narration; if you're doing that, it should reflect the character's perceptions in the moment.

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Many people have a personal animus against particular words. "Very" is a very common target. (See what I did there?) Certain words just seem inadequate to their task, flabby, somehow, or inapt.

I don't think that this has to do with the weakness of particular words. It may have to do with the careless overuse of those words, or their frequently being used where another word would be more apt.

But I suspect that it is actually a manifestation of a more general dissatisfaction with language. Language is a marvelous instrument, but it has many limitations. There are so many things we don't have words for. Trying to describe the taste of food, for example, is virtually impossible. Why is this. Why not just make up a word for the things there are no words for? It ought to be easy but it's not. And it is hard to understand why that is.

The answer may be that there are many experiences that are simply not vocalizable. They can be evoked, if they can be evoked at all, not by words but only by stories. But telling evocative stories is difficult. We try to avoid it by relying on simple words, and the simple words are not there. And so langage frustrates us. And I think we take that frustration out on particular words, the ones that seem to fail us most often, perhaps because they are the words closest to what we want to say, but don't quite get the job done.

It is, of course, a common pattern of human behavior to take out generalized frustration on particular objects, and for this to sometimes manifest itself as the social scapegoating of some hapless innocent, like "very" or "seems".

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The thing is the two say very different things, this one:

I stumbled to the ground and hit my head. I got back up. The walls and floors seemed to be moving

makes it clear that for the POV character they are aware that the walls and floors aren't really moving even as they are experiencing it.

Whereas in:

I stumbled to the ground and hit my head. I got back up. The walls and floors started to move

it's..fuzzier. They aren't thinking clearly enough to be cognizant of that distinction in the moment.

I've (unfortunately) taken a few knocks to the head over the years and in more severe cases the latter scenario definitely happens. It takes a second or so for your conscious brain to catch up and apply reason to what it's perceiving, so when I read those two passages I'm automatically drawing parallels to my own experiences and the second speaks to me of a more severe knock and a greater level of impairment.

There is also the matter of tense to consider - if the perspective of the book is that of a definitively past tense first person account where the POV character recounting the story from a reference frame beyond the action (e.g. it's a journal or a tale being told to another character etc) then putting the mistaken perception as if it were "fact" is clunky at best.

If you've got a particular dislike for the word "seem" itself then there are other ways to express the same thing without it:

I stumbled to the ground and hit my head. I got back up. For a moment it felt as if the walls and floors were moving.

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That struck me as wrong; because since the character is experiencing it, for them the walls don't seem to be moving, they are moving.

No, the word "seemed" is appropriate, if the character knows they are not actually moving, because hitting their head has impaired their vision system. They know the walls only seem to be moving, they are not really moving.

"The walls began moving" suggests the walls are actually moving; if you want to use that language, then (in first person) you need to qualify for the reader what is really happening.

I stumbled to the ground and hit my head. I got back up. The walls and floors started to move, but I realized this was an illusion, and waited for my eyes to return to normal.

If you have a 3rd person narrator, then regardless of what the character believes, the 3P narrator would use "seem" because the narrator didn't hit their head, they know the reality that the walls only seem to be moving.

Charlie stumbled to the ground and hit her head. She got back up. The walls and floors seemed to be moving, she ignored that and dashed for the door.

Unless you are in dialogue, or writing the internal thoughts of a character (in italics), you need to be careful about what you describe in narration (even in first person). If the character doesn't believe their own senses, they won't report their senses as reflecting reality. Virtually none of us immediately after bumping our head would think the walls are really moving.

This is why, when my character believes something that is actually untrue, I always find a way to state her belief as her direct thoughts in italics, or something she says in dialogue. At worst, my narrator might say "Cindy believed him." I don't want my narrator to state something that isn't true, like "He was telling the truth."

(But I write with a reliable narrator.)

(I think most of us would suspect we physically shocked nerves controlling the eye and they weren't firing properly; thus not compensating for our normal head and body movement to stabilize our vision (like steady-cam technology does), making it seem like the walls were moving when it was our own head moving around. Or we shocked nerves that coordinate our eye movements with each other, which can cause similar issues. At least, those would be my first guesses if a head bump interfered with my vision.)

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