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Grammar Quirks: Will Schwalbe on the Word 'Unique'

Will Schwalbe, host of the podcast "But That's Another Story" and author of "The End of Your Life Book Club" and "Books for Living," talks about liking the word "remarkable," disliking the word "awesome," and creating a word for when you're dancing by yourself. 

By
Mignon Fogarty
but that's another story cover art

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

Will Schwalbe: "Remarkable." The great thing about this word is that it proves itself true. If you declare something remarkable, by the very act you make it so. You’ve not only declared it worthy of attention, you’ve actually brought attention to it.

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

WS: "Awesome." I overuse this word and others do too. Very rarely are the things we declare awesome worthy of awe. It’s one of those words that is a product of our tendency towards hype and exaggeration. If we declare something interesting or good, we are damning it with faint praise. If we don’t say something is awesome, it’s as though we didn’t care for it at all.

GG: What word will you always misspell?

WS: I can never remember how to spell "independent." I always want to throw an "a" in there somewhere. I gather that at one time "independance" may have been a variant in English and that it has also been a common transcription error in historical documents. 

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

WS: "Arugalid." I think we need a new noun to categorize the type of person who is fresh and a bit peppery in a delightful way. So that’s one. "Independance." That’s another. So (see above) that way I wouldn’t be entirely wrong—perhaps we could define it to mean "dancing by oneself." 

Very rarely are the things we declare awesome worthy of awe.

GG: Any grammar pet peeves we should know about?

WS: I’m one of those people who just can’t bear any adverb before "unique." You either are or you aren’t.

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

WS: Lin Yutang, quoting the ancient scholar Yuan Chunglang, "You can leave the books that you don't like alone, and let other people read them." And also Lin Yutang on reading, "There is no proper place and time for reading. When the mood for reading comes, one can read anywhere...What, then, is the true art of reading? The simple answer is to just take up a book and read when the mood comes. To be thoroughly enjoyed, reading must be entirely spontaneous."

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

WS: Collective nouns! Writing about a foundation—should I say "they" or "it"?

Listen to Will Schwalbe's podcast "But That's Another Story" wherever you get your podcasts, or subscribe here. 

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network and creator of Grammar Girl, which has been named one of Writer's Digest's 101 best websites for writers multiple times. The Grammar Girl podcast has also won Best Education Podcast multiple times in the Podcast Awards, and Mignon is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame. Mignon is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" and six other books on writing. She has appeared as a guest on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and the "Today Show" and has been featured in the New York Times, Business Week, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, and more. She was previously the chair of media entrepreneurship in the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno, NV. She hates the phrase "grammar nazi" and loves the word "kerfuffle." She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University. Mignon believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study. 

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