Grammar Quirks: Angie Kim on Diphthongs and Onomatopoeia

Angie Kim discusses how grammar, specifically syntax and dialogue, played a role in characterization in her novel "Miracle Creek." 

Angie Kim, Writing for
4-minute read

Grammar Girl: What’s your favorite word and why?

Angie Kim: "Diphthong." I moved to the US from Korea in middle school, and I couldn’t speak English at first. The Korean language doesn’t have an “f” sound or a “th” sound, and it was impossible for me to say that word, which was a unit in English. When I attempted to say it, it came out sounding like “dee-puh-tong,” which made the other kids laugh and make fun of me. (Middle-school kids are not kind.) I remember one day, maybe a year after immigrating, when I could say finally say the word. I remember being so happy that I said it over and over again, like a chant. Diphthong, diphthong, diphthong. It makes me smile every time I hear that word (which, sadly, is not that often).

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GG: What’s a word you dislike (either because it’s overused or misused) and why?

AK: "Irregardless." One of my best friends and my husband like to use this word, and it drives me crazy. It takes a lot of self-restraint for me not to shout, “It’s ‘regardless,’ not ‘irregardless’!!!!!” (And yes, I know that a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster claims that it is a word that’s slightly different from "regardless." But, as he warned, “It’s not part of standard English and so . . . if you use 'irregardless,' people will think you’re uneducated.”)

GG: What word will you always misspell?

AK: "Onomatopoeia." Yup, I did it again. Typing it now, I saw the red squiggly line and clicked to correct the misspelling. Also, last month, posting about all my paperback events that were canceled, I had to look up 'canceled' vs. 'cancelled' (both are fine), 'canceling' vs. 'cancelling '(both fine, although I’m seeing the red squiggly line under ‘cancelling’ for some reason—hmmmm), and 'cancelation' (wrong!) vs. 'cancellation.'

GG: What word (or semblance of a word) would you like to see added to the dictionary? Why?

AK: I love this question! There are so many words I’d love to see added to the dictionary, mostly because I play this game by the New York Times called the Spelling Bee. Each day, the NYT posts 7 letters, and you have to make as many 4+-letter words as you can, using those letters. You can reuse them multiple times, but there’s one letter each day that you must use. And there’s always a pangram, which uses every letter at least once. (Today’s letters were R, O, B, L, M, G, and I, and the pangram was IMBROGLIO. Yesterday’s was JAILBIRD.) I first learned about this game from an essay by Laura Lippman about being a Spelling Bee obsessive, and I’ve become obsessed as well. Every day, there’s some compound word that I wish were a real word in whatever dictionary the NYT team uses, like NAPMAN or LIMBOGIRL.

GG: Any grammar pet peeves we should know about?

AK: I hate when people use “I” instead of “me” as object pronouns. Example: “Joe went to the zoo with Sue and I” or “Joe gave the ball to Sue and I.” (Arrrrrgg, these are wrong!) You would never say “Joe went to the zoo with we” or “Joe gave the ball to I,” but adding a name creates havoc. I cannot say enough how much this annoys me. Also, "there’s" vs. "theirs." Why is this so hard? (It’s not!)

GG: To what extent does grammar play a role in character development and voice?

AK: It played a huge role in "Miracle Creek," my first novel, because several point-of-view characters are Korean immigrants who don’t speak English well. I deliberately wrote in syntax errors for those characters, especially in dialogue. I also refrained from using contractions when writing from their perspectives. For the rest of the (English-speaking) characters, I used different types of punctuation to differentiate the rhythm of their voices.

GG: Do you have a favorite quote or passage from an author you’d like to share?

AK: I love Dorothy Parker’s quote: “I hate writing; I love having written.” I find it so difficult to face a blank page. I’m much happier revising, and cutting/shortening is my favorite!

GG: What grammar, wording, or punctuation problem did you struggle with this week?

AK: I struggled with two! The first is “I find myself reading article after article that has me questioning notions of fairness….” Should it be “that has me” or “that have me”? Is “article after article” plural or singular? (Or is “that has me…” describing the second “article,” which is clearly singular?)

[That's a tough one, but it's singular! — GG]

The second has to do with a sentence with this format: “I did a, b, and c, and in the process, discovered d.” Should “in the process” be set off by commas? But “a, b, and c, and, in the process, discovered d” seems like way too many commas! Help, Grammar Girl!

["In the process" doesn't need to be set off by commas because it is essential. In other words, if you take it out, it seems to me that it changes the meaning of the sentence. — GG]