Grammar Quirks: Wendy Walker on the Word 'Literally'

Author Wendy Walker discusses balancing sentence flow with grammatical correctness, her unsuccessful avoidance of the word "like," and her love for words that sum up complicated concepts.

Mignon Fogarty
5-minute read
Emma in the Night

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

Wendy Walker: I have a few! "Juxtaposition," "incongruous," and "exacerbate." They sound awesome and have meanings that sum up a concept that would otherwise have to be explained with multiple words. I like to use them this way: "Juxtaposition" is the placing of things side by side so as to highlight aspects of each that might otherwise go unnoticed; things that are "incongruous" do not make sense when looked at together; and to "exacerbate" is to make a situation worse.

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

WW: This never used to bother me, but someone recently pointed out that the word "literally" is only appropriately used when differentiating something from its non-literal usage. He literally wrote the book on the matter. But we all use it—all the time—to accentuate a fact. I literally drove for six hours to get home. In the latter sentence, the word that should be used is "actually." There is no non-literal, metaphorical meaning of "I drove six hours." After having this conversation, I began to notice the use of "literally" constantly—and I now have to stop myself from using it as well. Ugh! It has become my least favorite word as a result.

GG: What word will you always misspell?

WW: "Nauseous." I have no idea why, but I never even get close enough for autocorrect to kick in! I know there are multiple vowels both before and after the "s," and I know that all vowels except for "i" are used. But I can never get the right order. Another one like that is "bureaucrat." I have tried to use various tricks for memorizing them, but I now have a mental block that screams at me as I begin to type: "nope...wrong...wrong again...wrong again..."

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

WW: "Alright." A little known fact: "alright" is not a word. The correct words are "all right." Some dictionaries include "alright," but that is only because of widespread usage, and they often note that it is the "non-standard" form of "all right." And yet "alright" just prances off my fingertips as I write. I actually have it on my list of words to search and change when I finish a novel.

GG: Any grammar pet peeves we should know about?

WW: I have a few! The wrong usage of "your" and "you’re." The wrong usage of "whose" and "who’s." And—my biggest pet peeve—the wrong usage of "me" and "I," especially when the writer (or speaker) is trying to appear knowledgeable about the correct usage and then gets it wrong. The hardest thing about writing passages that require the correct usage of either "me" or "I" is that they often sound awkward and pretentious. I will sometimes find another way to express a thought to avoid having to choose between the correct form and sounding pompous!

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

WW: It can be very important, especially if the character is of a certain age or from a specific educational background. For example, the narrator in my first thriller, "All Is Not Forgotten," was highly educated and arrogant. I made sure to use proper grammar, and big words whenever possible. In "Emma In The Night," one of my narrators is a teenage girl who speaks more casually (though still with an educated voice since she grew up in a wealthy suburb and attended a private school). Personally, I would probably not use incorrect grammar even when writing in first person, except when it would sound inauthentic not to. For example, the use of "me" versus "I"—few people would actually say "he walks like I," and yet that is technically correct ("he walks like I [do]"). But I would not misuse "your" or "you’re" because they sound exactly the same.

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

WW: It has to be, without a doubt, the opening passage from "A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens.

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."

To use one of my favorite words, the juxtaposition of opposites sets the stage for the conflicts that will be explored throughout the novel.

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

WW: The same one I always struggle with—using the word "like" too much when I speak. For so many people in my generation, and those that follow, "like" just rolls off the tongue along with "um." It’s just, like, so hard to stop!

One of the hardest things for me, as a writer, is (trying) to use proper grammar without interrupting the flow of the story for the reader. Consider the following sentences:

  • "When I see that it’s she at the door, I don’t know what to say." vs. "When I see that it’s her at the door, I don’t know what to say."
  • "With whom do you want to go?" vs. "Who do you want to go with?"

In both cases, the first sentence is technically correct, but they make the reader stop and think about the grammar rather than the story. Sometimes I will choose the incorrect version to keep the story moving. But when I read, I actually get more distracted now by incorrect grammar! Just like with every other aspect of a novel, writers have to make choices, knowing full well that some readers will be pleased and others displeased.


Author Bio:

Wendy Walker is a former commercial litigator and investment banker who now works at home in Connecticut writing and raising her children.  She is the author of the novels "Four Wives" and "Social Lives," and is the editor of "Chicken Soup for the Soul: Power Moms," "Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Mom," and "Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Dad." She is currently working on her next book.

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.

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