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Grammar Quirks: Ellen Feldman on Using Grammar to Create Characters

Ellen Feldman, author of "The Living and the Lost," discusses prepositions, "feisty," and the importance of finding the voice of each of her characters. 

By
Ellen Feldman
3-minute read

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

Ellen Feldman: Where to begin?  I love the word "feisty," because, like its meaning, it comes out swinging. I’m fond of "compassion" for the same reason, that it sounds like what it means. There, the S sound is not toughened by the T.  It’s, well, compassionate.  I also like "clement," though I couldn’t say why, except that just saying or writing it makes me feel calmer. And one of my favorite words has wandered in from another language. "Schadenfreude" carries in one long mashup both its pleasure and its shame.

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

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EF: "Share."  I don’t mind it in its original sense.  I’ll share my lunch with you or give you a share of my winnings, but people who want to share their feelings or an anecdote rather than simply tell me about it set my teeth on edge.

GG: What word will you always misspell?

EF: I have a lot of trouble between lose and loose, but perhaps that comes under the heading of grammar rather than spelling.  I love words, but I am not a good speller.

I love words but I am not a good speller.

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

EF: I’m ashamed to say that I cannot think of a single word now, though I often put words together when I’m writing. The language is already so rich that I wish more people used more of those that already exist.

GG: Any grammar pet peeves we should know about?

EF: The mistake that makes me want to commit violence is using the nominative after a preposition. Would you like to join Sally and I?  It happened between he and I. I think the reason I find this so offensive is that it’s pretentious. For some reason people think "I" and "he" sound more erudite than "me" and "him."

I also hate email that begin with "hey," and my name, and I’m shocked at how many of them I get professionally. Yes, I know I’m showing my age here.

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

EF: Grammar is essential in creating a character and distinguishing between characters.  In my last novel, "Paris Never Leaves You," the mother frequently corrects her daughter’s speech. 

The protagonist of my earlier novel "Scottsboro" is a semiliterate Southern girl.  It took me a while to find her voice, but once I did, I couldn’t give it up. I’d turn off my laptop in the evening and still be saying "ain’t" and using southern expressions. In my current novel, "The Living and the Lost," the issue is one of translation. Most of the main characters grew up speaking German and learned English as a second language, which sometimes wreaks havoc with their thought processes and the way they express them.  

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

EF: This isn’t very original, but I revere the deep morality of the opening lines of "The Great Gatsby."

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

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

EF: I’m fond of semicolons, but I often have trouble with them.