Smirk, Grin, or Smile


the English language is filled with multiple words that all mean about the same thing, but can’t quite be used interchangeably, and yet are used quite interchangeably nonetheless. Chief among these is the use of the word smirk instead of grin or smile by authors. Truthfully I had never quite seen the problem with this until a few months ago when I read an article by my favorite editor Jamie Chavez in which she expressed the fact that a smirk is sort of a sarcastic sort of smile, whereas a smile is… just that. A smile.

I think part of the problem is, as writers we have this desire to use other (sometimes more complex) words in an effort to both sound more intelligent, while simultaneously being less repetitive in the way we describe what our characters are doing. If a character is particularly happy and always smiling it might be nice to describe them as beaming from ear to ear rather than just simply smiling.

The great thing and sometimes the frustrating thing about English is that a lot of words mean virtually the same thing and a lot of readers probably won’t notice the subtly of it, but if they don’t know what a word means and were to look it up in the dictionary, occasionally you’ll come up with some interesting and perhaps unintentionally misleading results. Unless your character is (like Madam Schemptra) naturally sarcastic on a nearly constant basis, a smirk probably isn’t the same as the sort of beaming pride one might find at seeing their child for the first time. Or even, grinning like an idiot when in love. A smirk is just, slightly more snide, the look you might give someone when you’re trying very hard to come off agreeable when really you know the other person is an idiot.

8 thoughts on “Smirk, Grin, or Smile

  1. Omg, I can relate to this so much. The other trio I have an issue with is laugh/guffaw/chuckle. And I guess any other word that can be interchanged with laugh but shouldn’t. Guffaw is like fall-down laughter. Chuckle is a small laugh. Even giggle. I didn’t mention that one. That’s more of a childish/girlish laugh. Sometimes a character is just laughing dammit!

    • That’s one of the things I have trouble with as well. I get tired of saying my characters smiled or laughed. A guffaw does not fit most of the time, and a giggle I always considered kind of a silly laugh with a higher pitch.

      • I’m not entirely sure when guffaw would work, I always like snicker verses smirk if I want something sarcastic. But as a lot of editors will tell you, sometimes simplicity is the best course of action.

  2. One thing I can’t stand is writers TRYING too hard to use words when plain ones would fit. Descriptions come to mind; azure and things like that. It’s like they’re trying to sound smart, yet most of the time it just fails miserably.

    And yeah, smirk to me is always either sarcastic or cruelly triumphant. It’s like Malfoy’s only happy face.

  3. I read an article (don’t remember who wrote it) that said you don’t need to keep adding “he chuckled” or “she giggled”. If the comments are funny the reader should be able to tell that. I find it hard to give up. I am trying to use alternatives like, “He watched her lips twitch upward and knew that was as much smile as he was going to get.”

    • That makes sense, but sometimes as you pointed out its easier said than done. As long as a character isn’t laughing at every other sentence it should be fine.

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