Grammar Quirks: Ann Cardinal on Stuffy Language

Ann Cardinal, author of "Five Midnights," discusses her opinion on "deciduous": not only her favorite word, but the one she misspells most often. 

Ann Cardinal, Writing for
3-minute read

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

Ann Cardinal: In English? "Deciduous." I love saying it, and I live in Vermont where the new growth and shedding of leaves breathes life into me. We’re about to go into that time of spring where there are limitless shades of greens when you look at the mountains. In Spanish, it’s "mofongo." My favorite food in the world and so much fun to say because it has the percussiveness of a curse word, yet it’s anything but. Say it with me: "mofongo." Fun, right?

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

AC: Oh, that’s easy: “utilize.” People use it in place of, well, “use,” but it is supposed to signify something that is used for an intention other than its original purpose. Like, “I utilized my high heel shoe as a hammer.” (Which, if my carpenter husband asks, I’ve never done.) But I find that people use “utilize” to sound more dignified, however it has the opposite effect if you’re using the word incorrectly. Me? I like simplicity, to use straightforward language.

GG: What word will you always misspell?

AC: "Deciduous."

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

AC: “Shatnering.” A style of speaking based on the…singular…and...halting…delivery of "Star Trek" icon William Shatner. My brother and I have been doing it for years.

GG: Any grammar pet peeves we should know about?

AC: Well, with all that’s going on in the news about the pandemic, I’ve heard way too many people (who should know better) use the expression that we’re in “unchartered territory.” It is “uncharted territory,” people! Okay, I feel better now.

I like simplicity, to use straightforward language.

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

AC: Oh, I think a big role. For example, when I was writing "Five Midnights," my editor asked me why I had the older character, tío Esteban, often speak without contractions. But that’s the way my actual uncle Esteban speaks: very formal. When you learn a second or third language you tend to do it very precisely, take less risks. At least that’s how I am when speaking Spanish. But this small choice lends a texture to the character, brings forward his old fashioned, traditional roots.

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

AC: Right now, I’m drawn to one of my favorite quotes from Tolkien’s "The Lord of the Rings":

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

It brings me comfort.

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

AC: I am an admissions counselor for the MFA in Writing programs at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and when I’m emailing a prospective student, I always struggle with “at what number should I call you?” It just sounds…stuffy, you know? But it’s an MFA in WRITING program, so “What number should I call you at?” is just not appropriate. I suppose I could add “yo,” as in “What number should I call you at, yo?”

Or maybe not.