Grammar Quirks: Rachel Heng on the Word 'Faff'

Rachel Heng, author of "Suicide Club​," talks about a choice George Saunders passage and fun words like "kerfuffle" and "kelp."

Mignon Fogarty
3-minute read

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

Rachel Heng: I couldn’t possibly choose just one! Some favorites: "shim," "kerfuffle," "gelatinous," "faff," "chaff,"  "gloaming," "phosphorus," "crepescule," "kelp," "manatee," "rectilinear," "orbit," "virulent," and "photon."

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

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RH: "Revert" (when used to mean "reply") is a pet peeve. "Impactful" and "growthful" also cause me pain.

GG: What word will you always misspell?

RH: I often have difficulties with "synecdoche."

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

RH: I really love the British word "faff." I don’t think it’s an official word, and I wish it were!

GG: Any grammar pet peeves we should know about?

RH: "Your" versus "you're." Also the use of "was" instead of "were" in unreal conditional sentences.

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

RH: Quite a lot. As a Singaporean writer who previously lived in the UK and now lives in the US, I’m extremely conscious of grammar, and diction more generally, especially as they relate to geography, culture, and class.

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

RH: The opening to George Saunders's story "The Semplica-Girl Diaries" is one of my favorite passages in fiction. It also feels particularly relevant to this interview given how much he conveys with just punctuation.

"Having just turned forty, have resolved to embark on grand project of writing every day in this new black book just got at OfficeMax. Exciting to think how in one year, at rate of one page/day, will have written three hundred and sixty-five pages, and what a picture of life and times then available for kids & grandkids, even greatgrandkids, whoever, all are welcome (!) to see how life really was/is now. Because what do we know of other times really? How clothes smelled and carriages sounded? Will future people know, for example, about sound of airplanes going over at night, since airplanes by that time passé? Will future people know sometimes cats fought in night? Because by that time some chemical invented to make cats not fight? Last night dreamed of two demons having sex and found it was only two cats fighting outside window. Will future people be aware of concept of “demons”? Will they find our belief in “demons” quaint? Will “windows” even exist?"

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

RH: I spent quite a while deciding whether I should keep the word "flat" in the following sentence: "The empty horizon seemed to be taunting Ah Huat, its gentle curve as smooth and unbroken as the flat eyeball of a fish."


Author Bio: 

Rachel Heng's debut novel, "Suicide Club," was published by Henry Holt in July 2018, will be translated in eight languages worldwide and has been featured as a most anticipated summer read by ELLE, Gizmodo, Bitch Media, The Rumpus, NYLON and The Irish Times. Her short fiction has received a Pushcart Prize Special Mention and Prairie Schooner's Jane Geske Award, and has been published in Glimmer Train, The Offing, Prairie Schooner and elsewhere. Rachel is currently a James A. Michener Fellow at the Michener Center for Writers, UT Austin.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.