As a kid, I played with language the way the boy next door (who grew up to be an architect) played with Legos and Lincoln Logs. I was in love with stories and their building blocks—words, syntax, and style.
I was mad for Mad Libs and hung up on Hangman. Some friends wouldn’t play with me because they said I used “too-big” words. I admit I was ____________ [adjective] and a __ __ __ __ __.
Vocabulary and grammar quizzes were the highlight of seventh grade English, and served as counterweight to my less-than-stellar efforts in penmanship. I could recite homonyms, synonyms, and antonyms as well as my brother could quote baseball stats.
During high school, I was in a Scrabble phase, although I never bothered to memorize the list of Q words. As a devotee of the NYT’s On Language column, I took great delight in knowing the difference between rock and stone, done and finished, and whether countless could properly be used to describe things that could be counted. (It sometimes can.)
The Stanford Daily ran the New York Times crossword puzzle. A group of us picked up the paper every morning before Civil Procedure and—during class—raced to be first to complete it (in pen, of course). One day I was so excited I was done (er, finished), I pumped a triumphant fist. When the professor called on me, I blurted out the answer to 37 Across.
With the advent of the web came a plethora of wordplay and word game sites—limericks, haikus, palindromes, alliterations, and word scrambles. Whenever I moderate a panel at a mystery conference, I concoct an anagram from each panelist’s name. I’m pleased that Twist Phelan regroups into shalt pen wit. It also morphs into whip talents.
When I was writing the Pinnacle Peak mysteries, I couldn’t resist adding wordplay to the novels. Hannah Dain is the protagonist in FAMILY CLAIMS. The story is loosely modeled on Hamlet, the prince of Dain-mark.
Every writer constructs a style by choosing how to put words together, and while some of my choices would be approved by any grammar pedant, others would be thoroughly offensive. Oscar Wilde said in a note included with a manuscript he delivered to his publisher, “I’ll leave you to tidy up the woulds and shoulds, the wills and shalls, thats and whichs.” If Oscar wasn’t concerned about the technical aspects of grammar, I’m certainly not going to be a language prude.
What I love about language is how it can seduce, charm, excite, please, and bliss us. Yes, I used bliss as a verb. If you don’t like it, avoid Shakespeare, who made a verb out of a noun every chance he got.
I also love the way usage can change, as well as the way it can remain useful over a long period of time. I try to use words and syntax and grammar that most accurately make the clear but nuanced impressions I want to make. There’s no point in sneering at the supermarket’s twelve items or less sign. Less and fewer might be a clear and useful distinction, but the meaning really doesn’t change enough to matter. Hopefully has come to mean “I hope that,” and nothing will change it back to what it was. It’s snobbish and elitist to put down other people for using language that’s perfectly clear in its meaning, even if it’s not what the OED recommends.
On the other hand, it’s worth making an effort to use words like uninterested and disinterested and imply and infer properly, because these words make useful distinctions between real actions. Holding onto their traditional meanings retains a richness in the language that has practical benefits in communicating accurately. But these may all be matters of opinion, and that’s okay because, as a writer, I’m creating a style—a composite of my choices—that expresses my taste in language. It may be a shame or not, but nobody writes like Shakespeare any more.
I’m reviewing the page proofs for my story “Happine$$” in next year’s MWA anthology, The Rich and the Dead, where, I must admit, the extra commas and missing hyphens make me wince. So I’m still a punctuation snob after all.