I’m With -ER

I’m going to go off on a grammar tangent, you guys. I love grammar. LOVE IT. As a Linguistics minor in college, I learned to respect changing language, and in spoken language, I heed the general “if a person is understood, then the language is working” ideal. But written word is a different animal, and it’s harder to break me of these rules. Yes, if you’re understood, the language is working, but also, editors answer to a higher power: copyeditors (angel sound). And copyeditors don’t want ANY of your bs.

I totally understand (and embrace) that language is a living, growing, changing thing. I do. But there are some things that just sound like a farty honk in the middle of a beautiful symphony. And one of those is this new, strange tendency to use MORE something instead of something-ER in all cases.

I have hypotheses about why we are using MORE more. In brief: I think it’s partially because of the excessive use of hyperbole (it’s even MORE annoying than it was ten years ago when all we were saying was a thousand percent). But it also has to do with the rhythms of language now.

I listen to language a lot, and carefully. I hear patterns. And a very contemporary pattern is for very staccato sentences. We even do it in our writing, with. That. Very. Trend. (You’ve seen it, right? With the periods between words for emphasis? Can we just not though? It’s tired. I’m tired.)

The use of MORE instead of the often grammatically correct –ER plays directly into that trend. Consider this example:

(Incorrect) OMG I’m even more cool than I was yesterday. (You can practically hear the periods.)

As opposed to

(Correct) Yo, I’m cooler than I was yesterday. (This feels more languid, and almost skater-ish in tone.)

Coooooollllerrrrrr as opposed to more.cool. (laaaaaaaa vs. bam.bam)

I hear it, and I get it. But my grammar marm self (who is, actually, an editor) can’t get on board. If you want to sound staccato in this case, choose a word that takes more instead of -er. More kickass. More badass. More something with less ass but two or more syllables.

Here’s another example:

(Incorrect) Wanda is more smart than Patrick, and that’s why I’m voting for her!

I still hear what you’re getting at, but I also want to tear down Wanda’s streamers and balloons and replace them with flyers that say “I’m with -ER!”

The way to get my vote is to say

(Correct) Wanda is smarter than Patrick, and that’s why I’m with her!

The actual rule, according to my grammar teachers and the Interwebz is that we use more for polysyllabic adjectives, and –er for monosyllabic adjectives. So things are greener, but more yellow. Posher, and more elegant. Your writing can be more excellent, and also more marvelous, and your prose shorter, greater, and tighter. This blog post is more terrific and grander than the last one. (Look how I just combined a more and an –er in one sentence! Wut. Magic!)

There are exceptions, there always are. In this case they are words that end in y: Prettier. Funnier. Sillier. Jauntier. Wonkier. (All things I aspire to be.)

Write how you want to write. Use language how you want to use language. But know this: Editors know the rules and you better have a very good reason for breaking them. Don’t give us a reason to suspect you don’t know what you’re doing.

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Antagonists Need Love Too

Here’s something we haven’t talked about yet: antagonists. Urgh, that mean kid in school who is just relentless! The one who picks on the main character for being smart/weird/tall/anything at all. The one who makes life difficult.

More often than not, when I read these characters, they come across as a flat, simple, undeveloped sort of mean. So many bullies, especially in middle grade, are just mean for the sake of being mean. But you know what’s a lot more fun to read? Motivated mean.

I want to empathize with the antagonist.

Pure meanness is never believable. It’s hard to relate to a kid who beats up another kid, or tortures spiders, or sides with the evil aliens taking over Planet Margon unless we can believe that kid has something in her life that makes readers go “oh, yeah. I can see why she made that choice even though I wouldn’t do that.”

Let’s look at everyone’s favorite bad guy, Snape. He’s awful to young Harry Potter, and as it all unfolds that he has history with Harry’s parents, slowly, Snape becomes relatable and super sympathetic, squeezing our hearts by the end of the series. Rowling handles this neatly, expanding on the story as Harry is growing emotionally, and we don’t all have the luxury of 7 books to unpack our antagonists that way. So how can we do it?

  • Spend as much time with your antagonist as you do with your protagonist. Write as thorough a character sketch before you start writing. Consider her home life, the expectations the world may have of her, her inner conflicts.
  • If your antagonist isn’t human, give her some human qualities (like the jealousy of Hal in 2001).
  • Show readers what she cares about. Does she visit her grandmother in the home each week? Does she volunteer at the dog shelter? Does she recycle clothes into dolls for kids in Appalachia?
  • Give readers a taste of where she went sour. Are her parents bullies too?
  • Show the similarities of your antagonist and protagonist. If they both love collecting Lisa Frank stickers, that will help make your antagonist ever so slightly rounder.
  • Show the history of your antagonist and her relationship with the protagonist. It can be something seemingly small that somehow stuck with the antagonist and grew. (Confession: when I was in 7th grade and had few social graces, I once commented that a classmate wore the same pants two days in a row. I had no memory of this, but I met the person as an adult, and she brought the moment up. It had affected her in a “mean girl” way, and I have to say, I still hate thinking about it. My point is, tiny things can have unexpectedly big consequences.)

By rounding your antagonists, your whole story will become much more engaging and memorable. They say reading fiction makes people more empathetic, and that starts with being able to understand the mean kids, doesn’t it?