JoAnn Chaney, author of "As Long As We Both Shall Live," discusses the power of words, "literally," and how commas can save lives.
Grammar Girl: What’s your favorite word and why?
JoAnn Chaney: I can’t say I have a favorite word in particular, but I do tend to like the words that most people seem to hate. You know, the words that get a visceral reaction. "Moist." "Vomit." "Squirt." "Panties." I’ve watched people cringe when they hear those words used, and the simple power of a few letters strung together never fails to amaze me.
GG: What’s a word you dislike (either because it’s overused or misused) and why?
JC: I hate when people use the word "literally." I get when it’s used for emphasis, but c’mon. Unless you are Chris Traeger on "Parks and Rec," please stahp.
GG: What word will you always misspell?
JC: Success, although I have a rhyme I learned from an episode of The Simpsons that helps me remember. “S-U-C-C-E-S-S, that’s the way you spell SUCCESS." And vaccuum. I think it’s something about those double letters that throws me.
GG: What word (or semblance of a word) would you like to see added to the dictionary? Why?
JC: I’ve considered this question for longer than I’d like to admit, and I have to say I can’t think of a single one that hasn’t already been added. But I will say I’m a big fan of urbandictionary.com, where a lot of new slang is added. Browsing through that site keeps me hip and cool. Maybe.
GG: Any grammar pet peeves we should know about?
JC: I’m a big supporter of the #commasmatter movement. (Although it has been said I tend to either over- or under-use the comma myself.) Leaving a comma out can make a big difference and can lead to some hilarious sentences. Like:
Let’s eat Grandma! vs. Let’s eat, Grandma!
Time to eat some Chinese baby! vs. Time to eat some Chinese, baby!
See? Commas totally matter.
GG: To what extent does grammar play a role in character development and voice?
JC: Oh, grammar definitely plays a huge part in both voice and character development. For example, my character Detective Loren speaks in short, fragmented sentences, and that tells the reader a lot about him as a man—things like Loren is rough around the edges, isn’t a great communicator, and often keeps his thoughts to himself. At least, until it’s time to open his mouth and say his piece.
GG: Do you have a favorite quotation or passage from an author you’d like to share?
JC: Man oh man, there are so many. But if I had to choose only one, it’s from Walt Kelly’s Pogo comic strip: "We have met the enemy and he is us." Gives me chills every time I read it.
GG: What grammar, wording, or punctuation problem did you struggle with this week?
JC: For some reason, as I’ve been writing I’ve been having issues using the correct form of "there," "their," or "they’re"—and all the other words that sound the same but are spelled differently. I never realized how many there are until I started screwing them up all the time. It’s normally something that I catch right away, but lately I’ve been typing so fast I miss those mistakes until I go back to reread.