One of my favorite actors is Johnny Depp; one of my favorite actresses is Angelina Jolie. Both are lovely to look at, and Depp's got depth indeed in much of his work.


Thus, the DVD release of


The Tourist, in which they costar, piqued my interest. Alas, I discovered that "tourist" wasn't the only word with two "t"s, an "r" and "ou" that came to mind while viewing it.


A spy thriller about an American who meets a beautiful European woman and is swept into a veritable tsunami of international intrigue, the movie made me think of two words: tortuous and torturous. They're commonly used and commonly confused, with one little "r" making the difference.


"Tortuous" is an adjective that means twisty, winding, full of turns; "torturous" is an adjective, too, but it pertains to that which causes torture or suffering, inflicting pain in a cruel way. Interestingly, the medical term "tortuous colon," which means a large intestine that is long, twisted, and contorted, is often mistakenly called "torturous colon" because of the suffering it causes. Yes, the long and winding can cause pain and suffering--but they are not identical.


In the description of plots the two words are often confused as well, for a similar reason. Not every long and twisty plot is torture to read or to watch; sometimes the plot turns give us delight and function like a puzzle to be solved, leading us ever further into the the story. But other times complications pile on complications, and the twists and turns become too many to follow. It feels like our brain hurts, and it's a bit of torture, albeit mild.


The Tourist isn't all that torturous, with such lavish eye candy at hand, but the plot does escalate in complexity, clearly approaching the tortuous level. So be careful which word you use when describing it and similar works. No one wants to produce torturous prose marked by confused words, does one?


What's your favorite complicated plot? Sherlock Holmes stories? Or something a bit more twisty? Let us know!


Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and taught English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services.



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by Fricka on ‎04-01-2011 11:43 AM

Well, I'm patting myself on the back, because I knew before I read the whole of Ellen's post that tortuous meant a slow, painful pace while torturous was more akin to torture. (Tongue in cheek, I have to wonder if both words don't have a relationship to the tortoise or turtle, which, while interesting reptiles, tend to be extremely slow, at least from a human viewpoint. Just how painful a slow moving plot might be to the reader is probably an individual reaction)

Still, it's interesting to discuss the importance of that extra "r" which gives the word torturous the meaning of giving pain. I tend to think of tortuous, as in plot line, rather boring, and whether it refers to a book or film, my usual reaction is to doze off. Torturous, though, in my view, does not necessarily apply to books or films that are considered to be thrillers, but instead so convoluted that they cause confusion on the part of the reader or viewer. If we're going to discuss twisty plots that cause bafflement to the reader or viewer, we can probably include the works of Williiam Shakespeare, who is noted for his sub-plots..


Think of a play like Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," with all the loose ends of the Duke and his pending marriage to Hippolyta, Bottom and his players, and the two sets of lovers, and then throw in Oberon, Titania and the whole set of fairy folk, and you have the potential for confusion. On top of that, Shakespeare gave his three main female characters similar names, all beginning with the letter 'H" and ending with "A"! ! Hippolyta, Helena, and Hermia--one almost needs to keep a score card just to remember which is which! Thank goodness Will didn't give the queen of the fairies a name beginning with "H" also, or it would be even more torturous Hee hee!

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