Category Archives: Op-Ed

The Battle of Who Could Care Less

If you’re reading this blog, it’s because you care about words and the myriad ways they can be strung together into stories. You may even have a grammatical, idiomatic, or linguistic pet peeve or two. That vs. Which, Who vs. Whom, terminal serial commas, singular they, sentence fragments, sentences beginning with a conjunction, split infinitives, sentences ending in a preposition–you may be driven into a fine froth when someone abuses your linguistic sensibilities.

That’s perfectly fine.

In a perfect world, lessons on Standard English would include both sides of each debate and examples of rule-breaking for stylistic effect, but there’s not enough room in the textbooks or time in the curriculum, so we learn “rules” that come to us as if written in stone.

We’re on our own to learn how to relax and accept the wide range of usage that’s appropriate to any given time or place. For me, after years of effort, I’m finally beginning to make some progress.

Three examples:

X Items or Less

For a long time, I used to bristle at the “12 items or less” supermarket checkout line. Didn’t anyone at that store remember that Strunk & White admonishes us all to never use “less” in place of “fewer?”


Some people have a copy of Strunk & White AND a Sharpie.

But even Strunk & White ignores the advice of Strunk & White, so why shouldn’t the rest of us? And when you think of it, the “less” in that sign doesn’t necessarily refer to the countable noun, “items.” It could also refer to an implied mass noun like “shopping,” as in the following hypothetical conversation:

“How much shopping are you going to do today?”

“Not much. I plan to buy twelve items, or maybe even do less shopping than that.”

“Then you should totally use the ’12 items or less [shopping]’ checkout line. It’s for people who are doing twelve items or less of shopping, so they can get out of the store faster.”

“Hey, thanks for the tip!”

The key difference is this:

“12 items or less” focuses on the shopping experience. People who are only grabbing a few urgently-needed items are looking to get in and out of the store quickly, and the checkout counters have been designed to move them ahead of shoppers who have set aside a larger block of time to stock up for the week.

“12 items or fewer” focuses on the items. Customers with fewer items to ring up can be processed faster, so they are grouped together and run through the checkout counter to minimize the total number of customers waiting at the front of the store.

I actually prefer the sentiment behind the first version, but since most people engaged in less shopping tend to purchase fewer items, the two versions are interchangeable in practice.

Say it with me, fellow recovering correcters of supermarket grammar: “The two versions are interchangeable.” No matter what Messrs. Strunk and White have to say about it.

I Could Care Less

I also used to go nuts over the words people used to place themselves at the bottom of the Caring Continuum. When someone told me, “Make all the nit-picky grammar and usage comments you want; I could care less,” they clearly intended to say that they couldn’t care less, while their words expressed the exact opposite sentiment.


I’d roll my eyes in wonder at people who were too ignorant or lazy to add a half-syllable “n’t” to make their expressions more accurate. However, I’ve since encountered evidence that “I could care less” started its idiomatic life as a devastating topper from the 1950s. Back then, people who didn’t care about things would brag that nobody could care less than they did.

The Setup: “Nobody could care less about that thing than I do.”

The Topper: “Oh yeah? Well I could care less. Mic-drop. You just got served!”

Or whatever the 1950s equivalent was.

Throughout the 1960s, people got tired of serving up the setup line, only to get slammed by the topper. So instead, they increasingly started with the topper. Over time people forgot that it even was a topper.

Today, what you’re really saying is implied:

“What do you think about Donald Trump?”

“I could care less [about Donald Trump than some other guy who claims that nobody could care less about Donald Trump than he does].”

Which makes perfectly acceptable grammatical, logical, and political sense.

Or think of it this way. When someone tells you they couldn’t care less about something, they have to be lying because they could always care enough less to not even bother speaking about that thing in the first place. Admitting that you could care less allows you to provide entertaining commentary about the infinitesimal amount of caring you do, as Randall Munroe presents in this episode of xkcd:

xkcd: I Could Care Less by Randall Munroe

Head over Heels

This one drove me particularly mad.

Being head-over-heels in love would seem to mean being in a completely ordinary and unremarkable position, since your head is nearly always over your heels whether you’re standing, sitting, or jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch.



The only time you’d not be “head over heels” would be when you’re horizontal–which is ironic in the context of a romantic relationship.

But here’s the actual first-known citation of “head over heels” in the English language, from Herbert Lawrence’s Contemplative Man in 1771:

“He gave [him] such a violent involuntary kick in the Face, as drove him Head over Heels.”

How could you drive someone head over heels if they weren’t head over heels already? And what does it mean that the method of driving someone head over heels is a particularly hard kick to the face?

I don’t have a copy of the source material, so I don’t know whether Contemplative Man is on the giving or receiving side of that history-making kick, but it works both ways:

Mayor: Contemplative Man, hurry! Captain Brainwave is robbing the bank!

Contemplative Man: Let me think about that. Hmmm…

Mayor: Now Captain Brainwave is robbing the art museum!

Contemplative Man: Hmmm…

Mayor: Now Captain Brainwave has kidnapped my daughter!

Contemplative Man: Hmmm…

Caption: Suddenly and without Warning, he gave him such a violent involuntary kick in the Face, as drove him Head over Heels!

Being “head over heels” probably wasn’t intended to mean that the character’s head was located just anywhere above his feet. Instead, due to a sudden blow, his neck was snapped back, his back was bent, and his legs were twisted so that head and feet, normally located at two opposite ends of the body, had come together with one resting directly on top of the other.

Take that, Captain Brainwave!

To be head-over-heels in love is to be twisted into a metaphorical pretzel, which expresses exactly how it can feel.


Love hurts.

I’m a lot happier (and more fun to be around) now that I’m no longer a rage-fueled grammatical pedant at the supermarket checkout, and no longer telling people how much they could or couldn’t care. And I’m a lot more flexible now that I can position my head and heels in a wider variety of ways.

I invite you to join me in my new pet peeve: people who inflexibly insist that their usage is the only correct way to communicate, instead of thinking creatively and accepting whatever language gets the point across.

Do you have any other pet peeves you’d like to be rid of? Leave them in the comments!

Never Judge A Reader By The Cover

We’re not supposed to like reading.
We’re not supposed to like writing.
We appear to be big, dumb jocks.
We look somewhat scary.
We act somewhat scary.
We get tagged as Neanderthals.
From our look, we are
supposed to like certain things,
do certain things,
and act a particular way.
Because of the way we look,
we are judged at first glance,
judged to a stereotype.

As a kid, I was a husky, could-not-sit-still introvert, slow-developing reader of a boy. Without a tremendous amount of help and patience from the adults in my young academic life, I may never have grown up a reader. I liked the library, though. I liked to graze the shelves looking at the book spines, book covers and flipping through the pictures. I am a more accomplished reader now, but
roaming and searching the book stacks is still a favorite activity of mine.

One of the earliest memories of being completely, totally PO’d in life was when I was about six or seven and my onerous older brother told the librarian I  lied and didn’t read all of the four or five books (a major accomplishment for me at the time) I’d listed on my summer reading program sheet. I remember the sheet vividly, it had a drawing of a genie riding a magic carpet on the top and blank lines for what seems like 50 books. I was so proud of the first several lines of that sheet being filled in. I was a reader.

I will never forget the look the librarian gave me when she thought I had cheated and handed me back my sheet. She jumped to the conclusion this big, little kid standing on the other side of her desk was a cheater, not a reader. I was so embarrassed and so mad as my first real reading success melted right before my eyes, I crumpled into a ball on the library floor and had to be dragged out wailing and screaming.

I would like to offer an invitation to everyone who has ever swum upstream against the current of stereotype. An invitation to celebrate a love of books and literature despite how we look or act, especially those of us “Neanderthals” who like to read middle-grade literature.

I fall into the category of dumb jock stereotype. I guess a big, football lineman-type, sport-crazy athlete, and coach, with a somewhat scary visage that often makes little kids cry, cannot also be an intellectually driven, reader and writer of literature. People look at people like me and naturally think, “He’s a Neanderthal.”

  • Maybe it’s the truck driver looks? (Which, by the way, was the Hollywood descriptor of my extras casting photo when I was given a part as an extra in a movie back in my college days.)
  • Maybe it’s the occasional ranting and raving?
  • Maybe it’s the Kansas twang of my dialect or the silent “g” in “-ing”?
  • Maybe it’s the smile or the scowl which split time on my face?

To celebrate the fight against this stereotype, I invite you to join me in a little Twitter fun and Tweet what you are currently reading. Inspired by one of my favorite comic book heroes, The Incredible Hulk, I celebrate reading and literature every Wednesday by tweeting the book(s) I am currently reading under the hashtag, #MeReadBook. If there is also an audio-book in the mix, that title is tweeted under the hashtag, #MeHearBook.

Celebrate reading and celebrate readers—whatever they look or sound like.

Above all else, pass the word.

Never judge a book (or a reader) by the cover.

Major Writers of America pic

Can You Judge a Book by Its Color?

color wheelWhen I was in high school, one of the electives offered was Fashion Design. I  never could fit that particular class into my schedule (I was a choir geek through and through), but I had many friends who took the course. And I noticed they spent a lot of time talking about the color wheel and its affect on fashion (and people, too).

I have always been fascinated by this idea that color affects our mood. As a gardener, I’m often surprised how much time I spend thinking about the colors I want in my flowerbeds and how each of the different plant colors make me feel. A few years ago, my chiropractor husband and I spent countless hours picking out just the right shade of green paint for the walls of his new clinic, since we needed something that made the place feel…well, healthy.

So, I began to wonder, if we talk about color in our clothing, and the color on our walls, and the color of the world outside our doorsteps, should we talk about color when it comes to our books, too?  I decided to take a look at some of the MG books sitting on my bookshelves at home. What do the colors on the covers say about the stories themselves?


Yellow is a happy color, but it’s also draining on the eyes, so frequently people surrounded by yellow can become agitated and angry.

On my shelf, the books in which yellow dominated the cover were in both of these camps. Many of the humorous titles were predominately yellow, such as Donna Gephart’s How to Survive Middle School.

I also had many titles which were stories where mystery or intrigue played a large part in the book. For example, in Jessica Day George’s Tuesdays at the Castle, the castle itself senses trouble. (As a side note, this book cover spirals from blue, a soothing color, to yellow, which mirrors the rise in tension as the story progresses.)


Red is a color of power. It evokes strong emotions such as love, intensity, and excitement.  The books on my shelves do the same.

In Scumble, by Ingrid Law, the main character is given a extraordinary power which makes the things around him fall apart…literally. You can’t get much more intense than that! (As a side note, this book also has quite a bit of yellow, which I think adds to the agitation this cover evokes, but is grounded in green, a color of good luck and prosperity, which in my opinion hints at the awesome natural powers this boy has been given.)

In Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, the title itself tells you that this is going to be an adventure–that excitement awaits. (Not to mention that the red dragon on the cover looks terrifying–is the girl really going to let it loose? And that hint of yellow makes me slightly uneasy about this whole idea of releasing the dragon into the wild.  How exhilarating and alarming at the same time!)

School spiritsBLUE

Blue is a soothing, calming color, but it can also be associated with feelings of sadness, loneliness, or alienation.

In Michael O. Tunnell’s School Spirits, the main character is new at his school, so he feels isolated from the rest of the students. Oh, and there’s a ghost in the book, too, who just happens to be blue-green.  And lonely. And very much the sad being you would expect of a restless spirit.

Though there are many different covers for  the classic Mr. Popper’s Penguins, by Richard and Florence Atwater, most of them are predominately blue.  Mr. Popper (a dreamer and a painter by trade) spends his time caring for, and enjoying, the penguins he receives from Admiral Drake who is currently on an expedition in the Antarctic. Though the book is full of the antics of the penguins, and Mr. Popper and his family as well, the entire book exudes a soothing sort of safeness that all will be well if Mr. Popper is around.


Green is the color of nature. It’s also associated with good luck, tranquility, and health.

In Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Treasures of Weatherby, a girl names Allegra literally flies. There is much in the book that is mysterious as well, but the front cover captures so vividly this character’s flying attributes, which mirrors what mother nature has given the birds.  (Side note: this image is not the one on the cover of my book, but I do like how the bit of yellow in this version  captures some of the anxiety and restlessness of these characters, plus the black invokes some lurking evil that is hidden just out of sight….)

In Kim Baker’s Pickle, the main characters want to use school funds to pull off their pranks, and they decide to start  a pickle club as a cover. They are going to need all the luck they can get!  (I’d also like to point out that this book cover uses a lot of blue, too, which helps make this group feel aloof and alienated, because, well, they are are SECRET group, after all. They do stand apart.)


Black is associated with evil and menace, as well as death and mourning.

In Suzanne Collins’ Gregor the Overlander, not only is the Underland devoid of sunlight, but it is full of menacing creatures who have captured Gregor’s father.  This cover, though full of lighter buildings, has much hidden in the shadows.

In The Search for WondLa, by Tony DiTerlizzi, the main character, Eva Nine, leaves in search of the long-lost (and possibly no longer existing) land of WondLa.  She uncovers a world full of dangers, both of the natural world and of men. (As a side note, note that Eva herself is light against the darkness of the rest of the cover, and as she begins her journey she is the only one innocent of the world around her. Interesting.)


White denotes purity and innocence, but also can be cold, unfeeling, or bland.

In Breadcrumbs, by Anne Ursu, Hazel’s best friend, Jack, is captured by a woman made of ice, and Hazel sets off into the forest to rescue him. (Side note, notice the hint of red in the middle of the cover, which I think helps the readers feels the intensity of Hazel’s love for her friend as well as the power of the Snow Queen.)

In Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society, the four children who make up the society are chosen through a random set of challenges…it’s a very cerebral way of choosing some very resourceful children to take on a supervillain the likes of which the world as never seen.

There are more colors than my above-mentioned categories, obviously.  I’m sure there are many more books out there that might not fit into any one particular color category, either.  Or how about those that use lots of different colors?  Where would they fit?

Besides, colors can also be influenced by culture, so one culture may have a different perception of a particular color than another would.  For example, in Western culture white symbolizes purity and innocence, but in some Eastern cultures it symbolizes death and mourning.

Historical cultures attached slightly different meanings to colors than our modern sensibilities do, too: for example, black meant death in ancient Egypt, but it was also a symbol for rebirth and resurrection.

And, if I’m being honest,  color psychology is often met with skepticism in the psychological and scientific world.  I doubt any scientist would take my thoughts seriously, anyway.  So even though this is all in good fun, I hope the next time you pick up a book, pay attention to how the cover makes you feel.  I bet you’ll see that the colors on it might be helping to create the mood the book is trying to portray.

Soon enough you’ll be judging books by their colors, too.


Elissa Cruz likes colors.  If asked, she’d be hard-pressed to choose a favorite.  However, she’s not a big fan of avocado.  Or mustard.  Or beige.  She’s not a big fan of 1970s fashion, either, come to think of it.  And in her opinion turquoise is a little too garish in anything larger than a piece of jewelry.  She writes books for kids of all ages and is the ARA of the Utah/Southern Idaho region of SCBWI.