Authors (and spouses) Jennifer Miller and Jason Feifer talk about problems with colons, misused quotation marks, and how grammar brought them together.
GG: Any grammar pet peeves we should know about?
JM&JF: It drives both of us crazy to see quotations misused on signs. Walk into a restaurant, for example, and you might see a sign that says “Seat Yourself,” and the phrase is in quotations. Or, the menu might say “homemade” apple pie. Who are these people quoting? What do they think quotation marks mean? Do they realize that “homemade” apple pie suggests that the pie IS NOT homemade?
Also, the phrase “who knows” technically has a question mark at the end. At least, that’s the style followed by Entrepreneur’s copy chief—and it drives Jason nuts. “Who knows” may functionally be a question, but it’s colloquially used as a statement. What’s wrong with that guy? Who knows. That’s how I think it, and that’s how I want to read it. Who knows is not a question. You’re not asking who knows. You don’t say “who knows?” because you’re searching for someone among the masses who knows. You’re saying: Nobody knows. It’s a statement, not a question.
GG: To what extent does grammar play a role in character development and voice?
JM&JF: Let us come at this question from another direction: Grammar played a central role in the development of our relationship. In 2009, we were both doing a lot of online dating. Back then—and this was before swiping was de rigueur—the dating profile was central to finding and filtering for dates. As writers, we both paid close attention to how other people crafted their profiles. At the risk of sounding pretentious, it was important to us that our dates could put two words together, knew the difference between “there” and “their,” and didn’t litter their profiles with emoticons. (Again, pre-emoji days!)
So when Jason logged into OkCupid and searched for “Jewish Journalist,” he had high hopes. And lo and behold, Jen’s name popped up at the top of the list. Jason dashed off a message to Jen, and when she opened it, she noticed something spectacular. Jason had used a semicolon; even more importantly, he had used it correctly. That was some advanced-level stuff! For this reason at the very least, Jen decided to meet Jason for a drink. I guess thanks in part to a semicolon, the couple is now married and the co-authors of a novel. Go grammar!
GG: Do you have a favorite quotation or passage from an author you’d like to share?
JM&JF: From Fitzgerald’s "The Crack-Up": "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
Jen loves this quote because it applies to so many things in life. Very little in our world is truly black and white. Also, Jen would like to cite the entirety of Orwell’s "Politics and the English Language." (Ironic, because she just used a cliché—“black and white”—in the previous sentence). But still. The lessons of that essay continue to resonate decades later. (Fake news. Alt-right. Let’s just call these what they are!)
To sum up, I will pull out this quote from the introduction: Our language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.”
GG: What grammar, wording, or punctuation problem did you struggle with this week?
JM&JF: Jason and Jen suffer from the same problem: too many colons. Jen would say that Jason suffers from it more: His writing is stuffed full of colons. (Jason would agree: That’s true.) But Jason also has evidence to the contrary: Just today, he heard Jen on the phone with her Washington Post editor as they reviewed a big story she wrote, and she specifically asked him to comb through the story taking out all the excess colons she’d included. Colons: They’ve become a problem.
About the Authors:
Jennifer Miller is an author and journalist. Her debut novel, The Year of the Gadfly, was called "entirely addictive" (Glamour) and a "darkly comic romp” (The Washington Post). She writes frequently for The New York Times Styles section. Jason Feifer is editor in chief of Entrepreneur magazine, host of the podcast Pessimists Archive, and previously worked as an editor at Men's Health, Maxim, Fast Company, and Boston. They're married and live in Brooklyn.