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,
Emma in the Night

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.


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