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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.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
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!

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