Laurie Frankel, author of "This Is How it Always Is," discusses tense problems in her newest novel, why the word "literally" has lost its touch, and "and."
Grammar Girl: What’s your favorite word and why?
Laurie Frankel: “And” because my favorite sentence structure (a different question, I realize) is conjunctive. I feel like: why use a period when you could use an “and” and a comma and just keep going? Sometimes whole pages go by before I feel the need to start a new sentence.
GG: What’s a word you dislike (either because it’s overused or misused) and why?
LF: "Literally." I mean I loved the word "literally," back when it used to mean, you know, literally. But when it’s used just as often to mean the-opposite-of-"literally," I get really stressed. When people say "literally" but mean "figuratively," it literally makes my head explode. (See? SEE?)
GG: What word will you always misspell?
LF: "Hors d’oeuvre." I had to look it up to type it just now. I also always type "untie" when I mean to type "untie"—damnit! "unite!"—when I mean to type "unite."
GG: What word (or semblance of a word) would you like to see added to the dictionary? Why?
LF: "Bobulate." Because discombobulate—meaning “to confuse”—is, stick with me here, bobulate plus “dis-” (meaning apart) plus “com-” (meaning together, so the opposite of apart). In other words, "bobulate" could itself mean either “to confuse” or, its opposite, “to clarify.” Confusing, right? (Or clarifying! See? Apt!) And there’s precedent. "Befuddle" and "fuddle" both also mean “to confuse.” So do "bewilder" and "wilder." I swear I’m not even making any of this up.
GG: Any grammar pet peeves we should know about?
LF: I dislike sentences that end with a preposition, especially “at.” There are no exceptions to this rule.
GG: To what extent does grammar play a role in character development and voice?
LF: It’s huge. Huge. It accomplishes so much, so efficiently, and so symbiotically because you’re also doing plot at the same time, like "literally" with the same words, so it’s a pretty neat trick. To wit…
GG: Do you have a favorite quotation or passage from an author you’d like to share?
LF: “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.” This is the first sentence of James Joyce’s "The Dead," and it’s such charming, brilliant, efficient character development via grammar it makes me giddy. (Unfortunately, no one in the future is going to get it because of the aforementioned tragic conflation of literally with figuratively. This is a real bummer for us and poor James Joyce.)
GG: What grammar, wording, or punctuation problem did you struggle with this week?
LF: The novel I’m currently writing is in the first-person present tense told by three different narrators. I am very inclined to write close third-person past. You’d think the author would get to make this choice herself, but no. It’s driving me insane.