Steve Cavanagh, author of The Plea, joins Grammar Girl to talk about the wonders of palindromes, their backward brother semordnilaps, and the impact of the opening line from James Crumley's "The Last Good Kiss."
Grammar Girl: What’s your favorite word and why?
Steve Cavanagh: Pop. Because it is simple, and perfect in every conceivable way. It’s also a palindrome (a word which is exactly the same if the letters are reversed). I also recently discovered the word semordnilap, which is the opposite of a palindrome in that it is a name for a word which will spell out a different word if read or spelled backwards. So, for example, live and evil. Or straw and warts. In case you haven’t spotted it already, semordnilap is palindromes backwards. How cool is that?
GG: What’s a word you dislike (either because it’s overused or misused) and why?
SC: Electrocution. People often say they were electrocuted when they receive a small shock from a socket or piece of faulty wiring. They have not been electrocuted. They have in fact received an electric shock. Even when the electric shock results in death, it’s not technically, at least in my mind, an electrocution. It’s an electric shock causing death. Electrocution is a peculiarly American word used when someone is executed via the transmission of electricity through the body.
GG: What word will you always misspell?
SC: Manoeuvre. That’s the UK version, by the way.
GG: What word (or semblance of a word) would you like to see added to the dictionary? Why?
SC: In this day and age more robust definitions of the words true and fact appear to be in order.
GG: Any grammar pet peeves we should know about?
SC: When anyone uses the phrase “true facts,” which I tend to see more often. This drives me to previously unattained levels of apoplexy.
GG: To what extent does grammar play a role in character development and voice?
SC: I throw a lot of rules out the window if it’s a choice between grammar and having the character sound authentic. A lot of my characters do not use correct grammar in speech. To impose it upon them would make them seem less real to me, somehow.
GG: Do you have a favorite quotation or passage from an author you’d like to share?
SC: “When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.” It’s the opening line from "The Last Good Kiss," by James Crumley. Now that’s how you start a story.
GG: What grammar, wording, or punctuation problem did you struggle with this week?
SC: This week? I struggle every five minutes. My sentences usually start badly, and then it will get more difficult in the middle of the sentence, and the less said about the end the better.