Daniel Torday, author of "Boomer1," talks about concision in speaking, "qwerty-ing" a text, and offers readers an excerpt on language ticks from his new book.
Grammar Girl: What’s your favorite word and why?
Daniel Torday: "Justice." Listen to those internal rhymes! Listen to how it starts, like a simile, to say “just”—but then it shifts. Look at how badly we need more of it in our world, right now.
GG: What’s a word you dislike (either because it’s overused or misused) and why?
DT: The neologistic way people refer to themselves as "myself" when they mean "me" hurts my ear a bit. I think as a novelist, or a short story writer especially, you’re always looking for concision. To say it tight. So when someone starts calling themselves "myself," I kinda wanna take out my red pen. I can almost see that little Microsoft Word green grammar squiggle hanging in the air.
GG: What word will you always misspell?
DT: I will literally never be able to learn how to spell the word "gray/grey." One is British. One is American. My second grade teacher’s name was Mrs. Gray/Grey. Hers was spelled the British way. I just won’t ever know. And how’s this for a fun fact: my nine-year-old daughter’s teacher this year is named...wait for it...Miss Gray. Grey. I just don’t know.
GG: What word (or semblance of a word) would you like to see added to the dictionary? Why?
Cassie has a serious pet peeve against adverbs, but weirdly she uses them ALL THE TIME while not noticing.
DT: With all the thumb thumb thumbing we do to type on our phones and tablets, I think we need a new word other than "typed" for when we write something on a traditional keyboard or a computer. Maybe "qwertied"? As in, "I waited and qwertied you this note to make sure I got it right."
GG: Any grammar pet peeves we should know about?
DT: I’m a pretty wide open descriptivist. I actually get excited when I see spoken language find its way into codified written language. That said, my new grammar pet peeve has morphed into a pronunciation pet peeve. I listen to a ton of books and podcasts these days—I run a lot, and I find when I’m doing research for a novel, it’s better to do research through Audible. But it’s opened a whole new world of mispronunciations, words actors and writers clearly have never seen before: Credulity! Penurious! Every proper noun they’ve ever encountered! It’s making my ear literally hurt. Maybe it’s time to start "Pronunciation Patty."
GG: To what extent does grammar play a role in character development and voice?
DT: Oh, it’s everything. I always write in a bunch of voices—"Boomer1" has three distinct voices in Mark, Cassie, and Julia. So much of capturing those voices comes from syntax. Mark has a PhD in English and at one point he goes on a tirade about some of the neologisms that drive him crazy. Cassie has a serious pet peeve against adverbs, but weirdly she uses them ALL THE TIME while not noticing. Julia is a baby boomer, and her language is a bit more lugubrious, Faulknerian, and what a schoolmarmish comp might identify as "overuse of comma splices." I love her.
GG: Do you have a favorite quotation or passage from an author you’d like to share?
DT: I love that line attributed to Twain, that’s in a famous Richard Yates story: "I wrote you a long letter because I didn’t have time to write you a short one." Weirdly, I think I’m more attuned these days to the conspicuous syllogism than I am the actual grammatical error. That line really captures why.
GG: What grammar, wording, or punctuation problem did you struggle with this week?
DT: I have always been confounded by the use of "recompense" as a noun versus an active verb. This is super nerdy, but I sometimes try to get it in there just to use it—"he granted it to her in recompense," as opposed to...oh, man, how to use it as a verb! It’s just so wily.
Bonus Excerpt from "Boomer1"
Late in "Boomer1" when the main character, Mark Brumfeld, is getting a bit unhinged, he goes on a rant at his mother about language ticks of the moment. The whole things feels ideal for Grammar Girl. Here goes:
“Half the people these days, when they talk, that’s how they end every sentence. ‘Kind of thing.’ What kind of thing? What’s the point of even saying it? It’s just like an opportunity to say one more sentence, the nervous tic someone makes when they’re not sure what to say next.”
“I wasn’t nervous before you said all that, Mark, but I kind of am now. What on earth are you talking about?”
“It’s somehow worse than the period when in front of sentences it was always ‘At the end of the day.’ ‘Well, at the end of the day I guess you just have to figure some of the banks were too big to fail.’ ‘At the end of the day, I guess all those credit default swaps were kind of a bad idea.’ ‘At the end of the day, you just have to get a job and keep it and make money from it.’ ‘At the end of the day, the day will be over because the day will have ended at the end of the day.’ It’s as if every human was getting paid two dollars a word for speaking, and they were throwing the extra lexicon in there to pad their paycheck.”
Julia sat there looking at him. It appeared as if she’d stopped listening to his rant at some point in the middle, and was now on to thinking of something else. As if she’d grown tired of listening to what was outside of herself and was now focused on something she heard inside.
His MacBook Pro never did that.
“If you think about it, I guess that is how people talk a lot of the time, Marcus, sure.”
“ ‘If you think about it’!” He said it so loud and clear she couldn’t have missed it, no matter what else she was thinking about.
“What, Mark? What’s wrong with that!”
“At least ‘at the end of the day,’ ‘kind of thing’ are just empty phraseology, filling up the space. But ‘if you think about it’! That’s actively insidious.”
“I hardly think our sitting here having a conversation, mother and son, is ‘insipid,’ honey.”
“Insidious. And it is. It is. The thing is, it’s how people talk whether you think about it or not. That one isn’t just filler in conversation. It suggests a kind of solipsism that can account for almost anything. People use empty language to fill up conversation if you think about it or not. You might as well say its opposite: ‘Well, if you don’t think about it, I guess people do use a lot of empty rhetoric.’ But it’s not empty rhetoric, that ‘if you think about it.’ I mean: right here and now, think about it. If I were to say to you, ‘If you think about it, CTE is a brutal disease killing off dozens of NFL players after they retire,’ the sentence literally suggests that the contingency is such that if you don’t think about it, it isn’t true. ‘Well, if you don’t think about it, CTE doesn’t exist. Phew! Now let’s go watch some receiver get his head taken off on a crossing rout, then deal with it for fifteen years until he commits suicide. Happy Sunday!’ I mean, this continues all the way on to the worst acts of the latter half of the twentieth century. ‘If you think about it, the Hutus’ treatment of the Tutsis was genocide’—‘ If you think about it, the U.S.’s plunder of Vietnam, then Korea, then Afghanistan, then Iraq’—only you don’t think about it. That’s the trouble. You don’t think about it. But in our complacency people feel as if it’s okay to sit back and say, ‘If you think about it at the end of the day kind of thing— bum- dumpah dum.”
Daniel Torday is the Director of Creative Writing at Bryn Mawr College. An author and former editor at Esquire magazine, Torday currently serves as an editor at The Kenyon Review. His short stories and essays have appeared in Esquire, Glimmer Train, Harper Perennial’s Fifty-Two Stories, Harvard Review, The New York Times and The Kenyon Review. Torday’s novella, "The Sensualist," won the 2012 National Jewish Book Award for debut fiction.