Grammar Quirks: The Grammar Pet Peeves of Mary Cecilia Jackson

Mary Cecilia Jackson, author of "Sparrow," lists the grammar mistakes that make her cringe, the importance of point-of-view, and what it means to sit "benext" someone. 

Mary Cecilia Jackson, Writing For
6-minute read

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

Mary Cecilia Jackson: Oh, how I love "quicksilver!"  It’s just another name for mercury, but it’s so beautiful and evocative that it sounds like something out of a fairy tale. At once liquid and metal, shining and silver, the word can describe so many things—a mermaid’s hair, a sinuous river, the restless ocean. I live part of the year on a farm in Hawaii, and every morning I walk outside just as the sun is rising and whisper, “Hello, quicksilver sea.”  It feels like a prayer.

Buy Now

As an Amazon Associate and a Bookshop.org Affiliate, QDT earns from qualifying purchases.

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

MCJ: I want you to know that when I type this word, I’ll be scrunching up my face like it’s a sweltering summer day and I’ve just smelled boiled Brussels sprouts.

I loathe and despise the word “literally” with a fiery passion that burns in my soul. It is everywhere, and I want to scream when I hear things like, “My head literally exploded,” “I literally cried my face off,”  or “She literally broke my heart.”  I’m begging you, English-speaking people, please use your words responsibly.  Learn the difference between “literally” and “figuratively.”  Otherwise, I will lose my mind. (Figuratively.)

GG: What word will you always misspell?

MCJ: "Exsanguinate."  This is why I do not write murder mysteries.

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

MCJ: When my youngest son was very small, he used to say that he wanted to sit “benext” me, a combination of “beside” and “next to.”  I’ve always loved that word. More than describing simple spatial proximity, it means “to be near someone because you love them.”

I’m begging you, English-speaking people, please use your words responsibly.

I also think “crunchifarious” should be a word to describe evil crunchy things that look deceptively delicious but bite back and hurt your mouth, like sharp and pointy nachos or over-baked French bread.

GG: Any grammar pet peeves we should know about?

MCJ: Oh dear. I was afraid of being asked this question.  I have so many grammar pet peeves. So, so many. I will mention just  a few, lest I sound like that mean neighbor lady who peers out of her front door, points her gnarled, tobacco-stained finger and yells, “You kids get off my lawn!”  Gird your loins.

  • "It’s" and "its."  I’ve pretty much given up on this one, because like “literally,” it’s everywhere.
  • The confusion of "your" and "you’re."  Also "to," "too," and "two."
  • If you’re going to say "y’all," you also have to spell it correctly.  It’s not "ya’ll" (ugh, my fingers burned when I typed that).  It’s a contraction for “you all.”  The apostrophe takes the place of the “o” and the “u.”  Hence, “y’all.”  “Ya’ll” makes no sense whatsoever.
  • Beginning sentences with “me,” as in “Me and my mom went to the beach.”  That’s a hard nope.  “My mom and I went to the beach,” and your mom is probably getting you a grammar book for your birthday.
  • “That’s between you and I.”  NOW is the time to break out that “me”!  Use it with gusto! It is “between you and me,”  because the pronouns come after “between,” a preposition, and therefore take the objective case.
  • Incorrect word/phrase usage makes me nuts.  Some examples: It is not “all the sudden.”  It is “all of a sudden.”  “For all intensive purposes” should be “For all intents and purposes.”  “Do diligence” should be “Due diligence.”  “Peaked my interest” should be “Piqued my interest.”
  • Using “that” to refer to people, as in “Mary Cecilia Jackson is the annoying writer that can’t stand incorrect grammar.”  “That” refers to inanimate objects, and I may be many things, but inanimate is not one of them.  Use “who” instead.
  • One last thing. In American English, periods and commas always go inside quotation marks. Always.  Do not let me see a period wandering lonely as a cloud outside quotation marks. It makes me sad and also makes me want to find the perp and lecture him/her with very harsh English-teacher language.

And now I will stop, for I must go and lie (not lay) on my fainting couch and clutch my pearls.

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

MCJ: I think grammar and syntax and word choice play enormously important roles in character development.

There are two POV characters in "Sparrow"—Sparrow herself, who suffers physical abuse at the hands of her boyfriend, and Lucas, the close friend and dance partner who has loved her for years and tries his best to be a strong ally. When I was in the early stages of writing this book, editors and agents with whom I did manuscript consultations strongly cautioned me about using dual points of view. Some actually discouraged me from attempting it and told me that it’s difficult to do well, because the voices have to be completely distinct from one another, reveal unique personality traits, and express emotion differently.

Sparrow, a gifted ballerina, is an accomplished secret keeper, a girl for whom silence is preferable to telling the truth. Her speech is careful and cautious, because she measures out information in a way that will keep her safe. Her interior monologue, however, is more honest and often uses poetic, artistic phrases and imagery, because that’s who she is in her soul. 

Lucas is a blurter, saying whatever comes into his head at the moment, because he feels things deeply and believes in telling the truth, even when that truth is terrible. This often gets him in trouble. Sparrow doesn’t swear; Lucas does. Sparrow isn’t sarcastic; Lucas is. Sparrow never reveals what’s at her core, but anyone in a conversation with Lucas can see instantly who he is, what he feels, and how deeply he is hurting.

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

MCJ: Yes! I have two!    

I’ve always been a reader and yearned to be a writer from the time I was six, but it was these books that made me fall in love with language and realize how powerful and life-changing it could be.

I read "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy when I was a sophomore in high school, and it remains one of the most transcendent, thrilling reading experiences of my life. I was mesmerized by the sheer poetry of Tolkien’s words, the musicality of his prose, the incantatory, almost trance-like cadences. I’ve always been a reader and yearned to be a writer from the time I was six, but it was these books that made me fall in love with language and realize how powerful and life-changing it could be. I fell completely under Tolkien’s spell when I read this:

One ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them

One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them

In the land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

All these years later, those words still give me chills. 

A few years ago, I read "The Country of Ice Cream Star" by Sandra Newman, and it is one of my top ten favorite books of all time. It’s about a dystopian world decimated by a plague that kills everyone over nineteen and the fifteen-year-old girl who sets off in search of a cure. The most stunning thing about the book is its linguistic genius—how Sandra Newman breaks and rebuilds language to reflect that every single thing in this world is broken, including the way the characters speak. Here’s my favorite passage, the one I have taped to my desktop because I think it’s heartbreakingly beautiful:

Be a foolishness of life, how we forget our hurts in sleep—like they unmade there, taken back into the time before. We wake in stupid innocence. Then all pains flash to memory, and every cruelty be fresh.

Sigh.  So gorgeous.

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

MCJ: I don’t often struggle with grammar or punctuation. I can, however, totally obsess about finding the right word and am not shy about diving headfirst into the thesaurus rabbit hole. I know full well that I won’t ever find what I’m looking for there, but that never stops me. I remain ever hopeful that the search will inspire the right word to pop into my brain.