Grammar Quirks: Tupelo Hassman on Character Sound

Tupelo Hassman, author of "gods with a little g," discusses her dislike of the words "villain" and "amazing," how thinking about sound shapes her characters, and what a "chingy" is.

Mignon Fogarty
3-minute read

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

Tupelo Hassman: "Apologize." I keep this word on my person because I make mistakes all the time, but not being afraid to use this word, knowing all that it admits and promises, it’s a tiny superpower. Like a mistake, an apology is something you make, and is work that shouldn’t wait.

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

TH: "Amazing." Can someone help me stop using this word? Is there a support group?

GG: What word will you always misspell?

TH: "Villain." Unless I think of it as itself and know that it is out to get me with its treacherous “ai” pairing.

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

TH: All the slang and off-color language, please, but I’ll pick one: "chingy." As a kid, I spent a lot of evenings in my dad’s machine shop watching him gamble with his friends (like all kids do). Dad’s friends, Jewish, Saudi Arabian, Korean, Mexican, owned the neighboring shops, and there was so much language, so much slang, and I absorbed a lot of that (and can kick ass at backgammon). "Chingy" is one of my favorites, short for "chingadera," Spanish for that f***ing thing, I can’t remember what it’s called. I love how "chingy" reveals the emotional state of the speaker. When I say, “Hand me that chingy,” you know how I feel. Thank you for handing me the "chingy."

I love how "chingy" reveals the emotional state of the speaker.

GG: Any grammar pet peeves we should know about?

TH: The temptation to correct someone’s grammar in an argument… it is classist and colonialist and all the things and if an argument is sinking this low, really, it’s time to walk away. I wish people, including myself, were more focused on ideas than on whether those ideas are properly made-up.

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

TH: I think a lot about sound when I’m finding a character. Rory Dawn, the protagonist of "girlchild," lives in the "r’s", she’s gravelly, like the roads where she lives. Helen Dedleder, of "gods with a little g," is loud, a shout. Her town, Rosary, is in a flight path and she’s learned not to wait for a break between planes to be sure she is heard.

I wish people, including myself, were more focused on ideas than on whether those ideas are properly made-up.

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

TH: Zulema Renee Summerfield’s empathy and brilliance knocks off my socks so constantly that I only wear sandals now. Her first book, "everything faces all ways at once," won SFSU’s Michael Rubin prize and I could open it to any page to answer this question. As here: "terrible? am i terrible? i don’t think so. like you, i’m just another like-you machine." Or: "…lately, the whole world is a hand and it’s pressing on my heart. i read the paper every morning and i cry at what i read. the whole of life is pressing on my heart."

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

TH: Villain. The little beast, for having that vowel-combination, is it a diphthong?, whatever that chingy is called, villain should apologize.


About the Author: 

Tupelo Hassman’s debut novel, "Girlchild," was the recipient of the American Library Association’s Alex Award. Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe, Harper’s Bazaar, Imaginary Oklahoma, The Independent, Portland Review, and ZYZZYVA, among other publications. She is the recipient of the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame Silver Pen Award and the Sherwood Anderson Foundation Fiction Award, and is the first American to have won London’s Literary Death Match. She earned her MFA at Columbia University.

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.