19 March 2013

Geeky Grammar Girl

I confess, I'm a grammar nerd. It's got to be genetic; it certainly runs in my family, and my daughter has been doubly blessed. It's a curse at times. Do you have any idea how hard it can be to read a book that's rife with typos, awkward structure, and just plain wrong usage? Oh, wait. I'm describing what I see on the internet. Okay, I see it everywhere: books, magazines, newspapers, email messages, not to mention text messages, tweets, and signs. It's enough to make one's head explode! In fact, the errors on signs have gotten so pervasive that they inspired Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson to embark on the Great Typo Hunt in 2008, criss-crossing the United States in search of "misplaced apostrophes, typos and other syntactical atrocities" to correct them. (You can find out more about this endeavor and its results on their website.) I don't think you have to be a grammar nut to have the same reaction.

A number of years ago I took on the mantle of Grammar Lady for a discussion board I frequented on far too regular a basis. I refrained from correcting people for a long time, gritting my teeth and sitting on my hands. There came a time, though, when I had to step in. A repeat offender made an egregious post that offended one's sensibilities in all ways, not just in the writing. It was so bad, I couldn't make my way through the tortuous prose (if it could be called that) that resulted from this person's compulsion to write and then not review what he'd written before hitting "post." It was exhilirating and liberating to finally release all that pent-up rage at the sloppy, incoherent writing that filled the screen. Turned out, my rebuke was much appreciated and enjoyed by the rest of the denizens. I did it in an eloquent, witty style and, before posting, made good use of the "preview" feature of the platform we used. Yes, it was possible to preview what one had just written to see how it looked and scanned before clicking the "post" button. One could do this a myriad of times to make sure one had written a coherent post. Sadly, it was an oft-skipped step in posting.

Fast-forward to 2013, when it's possible to comment on almost everything on the internet. Yikes! It's the Grammar Lady's nightmare come to life. Nobody reads what he's just typed. Nobody stops to check whether autocorrect has changed any words before she hits send. I have to stop reading comments sometimes not just because of the invective or inanity, but also because of the bad grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

Why am I telling you all this? [That's "all of this," as opposed to "you all," not that there's anything wrong with this expression. ("You all" or "y'all" is a fine colloquial collective noun that's further refined to "all y'all" to encompass absolutely everyone as opposed to just one or a few.) Perhaps I should have recast that sentence, but it's an innocuous example of the misunderstanding that could occur because of an inattention to clarity. Read either way, it's fine. That's rarely the case though. Sorry, my self-editor has emerged.]

A friend asked about a book on grammar published in 2009, Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, by Patricia T. O'Conner (updated and expanded third edition no less). I have a collection of reference books for grammar, spelling, and editing, having been a proofreader, copyeditor (used to be two words!), and publications manager in a past career. This, however, is not among them. Why not? you ask. To be honest, when it came out in 1996, I was pretty much over my intensive editorial career and didn't feel the need for yet another reference book on grammar. So I decided to pick up a copy from my local library and check it out now.

I've skimmed through the various parts of the book, pausing to see how she treats some of my pet peeves, what updates she's made, whether I agree with what she says is or is not a hard-and-fast rule. On the whole, this is a great little book. In a breezy, witty style, she lays out the rules and guidelines without being didactic. What she's done is take Strunk and White's The Elements of Style to the next level, and it's a good thing. I discovered clarifications of some things that even I, a professional, wasn't always sure of. She has a section on pronunciation that at times made me chuckle. Am I going to buy a copy to add to my library? No, but I heartily recommend it to anyone looking for a plain-language guide to the English language who doesn't already have several more intensive reference books in his or her arsenal.

How do we get some people to read this? You know, the people whose writing is at times so murky that you have to go back to the beginning several times to find your way through to the meaning.

It's a problem that has its origin in the way we teach the English language arts in school. When my niece was in middle school, she asked for help studying her vocabulary list for a test the next day. As we (parents, aunts, uncles at a family dinner) all pitched in, we were astonished at her response when asked to spell the word as well as define it. "Oh, we don't have to worry about the spelling, just the meaning." Why not? Wouldn't it fix the word better in one's brain to learn both aspects simultaneously, to have to be responsible for spelling and meaning on the same test? When will they have to start worrying about the spelling? Perhaps I misunderstood, but I don't think so. It would certainly explain some of the writing that comes from college-educated people these days.

Are grammarians an endangered species in the 21st century? I fear this may be the case. Even people who claim to be writers (and they are legion) seem not to care about precision and accuracy in their published work. I bought an ebook (cheap) that apparently hadn't been read by anyone other than the author prior to publication, as evidenced by the typos, awkward sentence structure, and just plain grammatical errors. It was unreadable. It's not unique.

Obviously, there's no easy answer to this problem. If you're interested in improving your writing to make it comprehensible, thus more persuasive, I've got a few books you might be interested in.

The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. At 92 pages, this is the most succinct, useful guide to proper English usage you'll find. I have the third edition, but I see that there's now a fourth edition. I may have to get it.

Woe Is I, by Patricia T. O'Conner (briefly reviewed above).

Words into Type, based on studies by Marjorie E. Skillin, Robert M. Gay, and other authorities, third edition. This is my favorite comprehensive style guide. I'm glad to see that it's still in print. If you're in the business as a professional editor or writer, you should have a copy of this book. I found my copy in a used bookstore in the '80s.

The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage, by Theodore M. Bernstein. In dictionary style, Bernstein, a former consulting editor of The New York Times, provides a concise handbook that covers problems of "use, meaning, grammar, punctuation, precision, logical structure, and color." I confess, I rarely use this. It's an excellent reference, though, and was a later addition to my library.

There are more, probably many newer, books on grammar and style. These are the ones I've found easiest to use. Doesn't that make it more likely that I'll actually open one when I'm not sure I'm doing the right thing?

In closing, I have to ask: Did you pause in awe of my utter geekiness in the fourth paragraph?


  1. I agree with you, Sara Leigh. The grammar and spelling I see these days is atrocious! Makes me cringe. I was never a professional writer or anything like that, but seemed to come by it naturally. My husband was a copy editor/proof reader at a small town southern newspaper, and he sometimes came to me for advice. But I don't think it runs in families. My younger sister has got to be the world's worst speller, and her grammar is not much better!I first noticed this when I went away to college and started receiving letters from her. OMG, you wouldn't believe! She has improved since then, but not that much. Well, I am rambling, but just wanted to let you know that there are still some of us around who do care about this. Thank you for mentioning "Woe is I", maybe I should get this for my sister, but she probably wouldn't read it anyway.

  2. Well, there goes my theory. Hahaha. If you give your sister a copy of the book as something that will help her in her career, maybe she'll actually look at it. Or you could start her off with the Strunk and White, since it's so much more concise. Then if that takes, you could spring "Woe Is I" on her. You never know.

  3. I really do proofread my comments (as in on Facebook), but some of errors still slip by. I often notice those an hour or so later and roll my eyes at myself. I sometimes wonder, too, what people think. Actually, I do believe I'll blame my keyboard for many of my errors; no matter how often I clean it, it just doesn't want to put some letters in there, no matter how hard I punch the keyboard.

    I am kind of a grammar nut myself and often cringe at what othr people have written and/or said. One (naw, many) of my pet peeves is (are) journalists who use phrases such as "between you and I" or some other incorrect pronouns/words. I admit to occasionally having to say things out loud to hear how it sounds, but not too often.

    My 7 year old granddaughter had quite a list of vocabulary words one night, and my son didn't realize they were not spelling words. She was not only giving him definitions but also spelling some words that many adults can't spell correctly.

  4. Good for her! It just seems logical to learn how to spell vocabulary words. It's part and parcel of understanding them.

  5. I stood up and performed a 1980s movie-style slow clap in awe of your 4th paragraph. Well, OK, I didn't stand up because, as we both know, I'm lazier than sin. But the admiration is all true. ROCK ON, GRAMMAR LADY!!!!! :-D
    Some Dark Romantic

  6. ::humbly bows::

    Who am I kidding? No humility here. Hahahaha. Thanks, Mina.