Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Book

Posted by Neal on July 20, 2008

Back in February, I wrote about the podcast Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. As I noted at the time, Grammar Girl (aka Mignon Fogarty) forgoes the ranting tone often taken by writers on grammar and usage (think James J. Kilpatrick) or punctuation (Lynne Truss), and instead provides friendly and humorous tips and mnemonics to improve your writing. Although Fogarty admits to having grammar peeves, and is sympathetic to the peeves of her listeners, she also says, “I often have to tell people their pet peeves aren’t actually hard-and-fast grammar rules,” and points out that the most fertile ground for grammar peeves is those areas where the rules aren’t so clear-cut.

The podcast has led to the publication of a book by the same name. If you like the podcast, you’ll probably like the book: It consists mostly of material taken from the podcast scripts, though with some material that seems to be new. Better yet, the entries are organized into chapters covering broad topics, which makes it easier to find all the entries on, say, word usage than it is on the website. If you’re unfamiliar with the podcast, you should know that despite her chosen nickname, Fogarty does not restrict her tips to just grammar. In addition to word choice and issues of syntax and word forms, the book covers punctuation, capitalization, online writing, and even how to generate ideas and overcome writer’s block. If it will in some way improve your writing, it’s fair game for Grammar Girl. Nevertheless, this book is not intended for people who make their living as professional writers, and who presumably already have other, more thorough references on their desktops. This is a guide for “everyday writers” who would like to write clearer memos, emails, blog posts, and the like.

I was mostly interested in the chapters that deal with grammar or usage (i.e. word choice), but I found that the non-grammar chapters contain some good advice. The chapters on online text go beyond the same old tips that netiquette guides provide; for example, Fogarty discusses how to format URLs, whether to begin an email with Dear or Hi (or neither), and when to use abbreviations in text messages or Twitter posts. In the chapter on punctuation, instead of simply saying that a comma goes outside the quotation marks, she notes that the rule is different for American and British English. My only complaint with these chapters is that occasionally Fogarty will state something as a rule that I consider more a matter of style. Case in point: Fogarty writes that the salutation Hi, John should be followed not by a comma (unlike Dear John), but by a period, since Hi, John is a complete sentence. True enough—in spoken English, where such a greeting would probably be followed by a reciprocal greeting from John. In an email, however, it is followed by the writer’s message to John. Hi, John is behaving not so much like a standalone spoken greeting, as like the standard Dear John beginning to a letter, only less formal. Why not acknowledge this fact and allow the similarity between Hi and Dear to extend to punctuation?

As for the chapters dealing with grammar, Fogarty’s overall approach reflects the “quick and dirty” philosophy of the book’s title: Wherever possible, she tries to give mnemonics for remembering the rules, and sometimes (for better or for worse) deliberately glosses over exceptions or complications for the sake of making a rule easier to follow. The mnemonics are often clever. One that I liked: If you remember the line The rAVEN flew down the AVENue, you can remember that affect is (usually) a verb, and effect is (usually) a noun.

As I said in my review of the podcast, my favorite entries on grammar or usage are those in which Fogarty provides some linguistic research along with a rule to follow. In one entry, she talks about why some people say on accident instead of by accident. Where another writer on language would fume about how on accident is ignorant, ugly-sounding, and just plain wrong, Fogarty summarizes the surprising results of one linguist’s study on who uses each expression. (See also this post.) When Fogarty talks about hanged vs. hung as the past tense for hang, she doesn’t just say that hanged is the past tense when you’re talking about the means of execution, as I’ve seen other usage guides do. She takes the trouble to find out why these two forms exist (it goes back to the existence of two verbs in Old English). Though this kind of linguistic material is outside her stated mission, its inclusion is one of the main traits distinguishing Fogarty’s book from other usage manuals.

Also as I stated in my review of the podcast, I especially appreciated Fogarty’s handling of some of the most intensely held grammar peeves. She does not simply repeat injunctions against starting sentences with because or however, using hopefully as a sentence adverb, splitting infinitives, or employing the passive voice. Nor does she rant in the other direction about the stupidity of such rules. Instead, she gives the historical rationale behind these rules, then explains why these rationales just don’t make sense, or mean only that a writer should exercise caution in doing these things, not avoid doing them altogether. (For some specifics, see the podcast review.) In her discussion of the because rule, Fogarty writes:

For grade-school children, subordinating conjunctions are only slightly less dangerous than matches. It’s easy to create a sentence fragment … when you start a sentence with one of these critters…. But once you’re an adult, you’re usually trusted with matches, and I believe you can also be trusted with subordinating conjunctions.

Similar arguments could be made for the other cases, too. On the other hand, she warns, “[K]nowing that myths are myths won’t protect you from powerful people who don’t have your level of language prowess,” and suggests the best course for practical reasons is to just follow the rules anyway, or rewrite to avoid the issues.

As I read the book, however, I realized that Fogarty does not give this full treatment to every grammar myth. Consider her entry on the use of they as a singular pronoun of indefinite gender. She acknowledges the widespread dislike of such usage, as in Everybody ate their lunch. She also acknowledges the problems with his, his or her, and other proposals. Even better, she states her support for singular they, noting that it’s been in the language even since Chaucer. Her bottom line, however, is to do anything you can to avoid it (since no strategy will please everyone), and to implore companies to cover the issue in their in-house style guides. This is reasonable advice, which certainly will do no harm to people’s writing and will probably be helpful for those in doubt. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help wishing that she had gone farther. As she left matters, it sounds like singular they in Chaucer was an example of how even the best writers sometimes slip. In fact, though, singular they was not even considered an error until grammarians several centuries later suddenly noticed and condemned it, instead of simply concluding that they had more than one meaning. All that history, however, is not going to directly improve someone’s writing, so I can’t take her to task for bypassing it.

In other cases, though, Fogarty could have benefited from a linguist’s input. These are the cases where she ends up giving advice that could actually create confusion rather than reduce it. For example, in the entry on misplaced modifiers, Fogarty gives these two sentences:

Squiggly ate only chocolate.
Squiggly only ate chocolate.

Both sentences are grammatically correct, but they don’t mean the same thing. Fogarty argues that the second sentence means “all Squiggly did with chocolate was eat it. He didn’t buy, melt, or sell it. He only ate it.” Indeed, it can mean this—if you say it with the emphasis on ate. However, it can also mean that all Squiggly ever did was eat chocolate; he never played baseball, wore sweaters, or drank cappuccino in Italian restaurants with Oriental women. How will you know the difference? By intonation and context. And this where Fogarty falls into the same trap that ordinary grammar mavens fall into: In spoken English, intonation is part of the grammar that tells you what only is restricting. In only ate chocolate, the word only can apply to just the verb ate (Fogarty’s reading); to the entire verb phrase ate chocolate (my alternative reading); and indeed, to just the direct object chocolate (the supposedly incorrect reading that means the same as Squiggly ate only chocolate). Certainly, if you can reduce ambiguity in your writing by judicious placement of only, you should do so, but there are cases where ambiguity persists regardless of how carefully you position the only. Fogarty’s failure to recognize this could confuse readers who wonder why Squiggly only ate chocolate can’t mean that all he ever did was eat chocolate, and leave them less confident than before on how to handle only.

In fact, Fogarty does realize the ambiguities possible with only, but never shares them with the reader. On page 12, in the course of discussing while and although, she says the sentence

While Squiggly is yellow, Aardvark is blue

can be misunderstood to mean, “Aardvark is only blue when Squiggly is yellow.” The placement of the only before blue violates the rule of placing only next to what it modifies: As stated, this sentence could mean either that Aardvark is blue only when Squiggly is yellow (the intended misunderstanding); or that when Squiggly is yellow, Aardvark is neither green nor purple nor red, but only blue. Following the textbook rules for only, Fogarty should have written

Aardvark is blue only when Squiggly is yellow.

How did Fogarty disambiguate what she actually wrote? By italicizing the when! Unfortunately, none of this subtlety goes into her standard discussion of only. Perhaps she was trying to keep things simple for the sake of quickness and dirtiness, but in this case, going a little more into detail would have helped readers.

In the same section, Fogarty discusses the often-humorous dangling modifiers, in sentences such as

Covered in wildflowers, Aardvark pondered the hill’s beauty.

A syntactician’s take on this sentence is not that it can mean only that Aardvark was covered in wildflowers, but that it’s ambiguous between that reading and the intended one, with the hill covered in wildflowers. Even so, this is a book for better writing, so whether the sentence is merely ambiguous or actually incorrect, it should be rewritten to avoid confusion. But what about sentences like this one?

Having already been diagnosed with cancer, it will be difficult for you to obtain insurance coverage.

Does the rule still apply, so that the meaningless it is taken to have somehow been diagnosed with cancer? Traditional grammars give a few easy examples, and ignore the trickier cases. I was hoping for more from Grammar Girl. (I suspect the advice here would just be to recast the sentence to say …you will have difficulty… but it still would have been worth mentioning.)

There are other errors or misconceptions that Fogarty helps perpetuate. For example, there is the well-known (among English teachers) FANBOYS mnemonic, which lumps for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so together as coordinating conjunctions. It’s true that traditional grammars stick the same label on all these words, but to see how truly ill-motivated such a classification is, read this post by Brett at English, Jack (hat tip to Language Log). The only reason anyone would put and and or in the same class as for and yet is that previous grammar writers did.

Furthermore, although earning high marks for actually knowing what the passive voice is (unlike many givers of grammar advice), Fogarty says that passive voice is wordy. Really? Somebody stole my chair has the same number of words as the passive My chair was stolen. The passive is only wordy if you insist on expressing an agent, as in My chair was stolen by somebody, but one of the main reasons for using passive voice is that you don’t want to mention the agent in the first place.

In presenting the difference between subject and object pronouns (e.g. I vs. me), Fogarty writes, “Remember, subjects are the ones taking action in a sentence and objects are the ones having action taken on them.” This characterization is incorrect. Squiggly is the subject in Squiggly woke up in a small, windowless room, was tortured for three days, and then died. For all three predicates, Squiggly is not taking action, and is even being acted upon for one of them (was tortured). Subjects cannot simply be equated with agents, nor objects with patients.

Of course, in a book of this genre there has to be at least one error in grammar or punctuation that managed to make it past all the editors — McKean’s Law guarantees as much. I won’t dwell on it, though I suppose someone will.

There is a lot to like in Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips, in particular the occasional willingness to talk linguistics, the evenhanded approach to grammar peeves, and the friendly tone and encouraging, practical attitude that permeates the book. For the most part, following Fogarty’s advice will improve the everyday writer’s writing, or at least do no harm. But where her rule presentations fall short, they may cause more confusion than they eliminate.

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7 Responses to “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Book”

  1. Now what about “Hi John”? I see it without the comma all the time. That puzzles me even when people explain that they use no comma because they see it as analogous to “Dear John”, which, being a single phrase, has no comma to split it, since no one gives it the same intonation.

  2. TootsNYC said

    “Dear John” is adjective and noun.

    “Hi, John” combines an interjection with a noun of direct address.
    It’s not different than “That’s a nice bike, John.”

  3. Neal said

    Hi, TootsNYC,

    I understand your reasoning, and think in spoken English, Hi, John is just as you say. I stand by what I said in the post, though, and upon further reflection, I remember a few emails I’ve received (before I learned of the opinion regarding Hi as an email salutation) that started with “Hi, Neal.” The period struck me as unusual. I imagined seeing someone in public who didn’t really want to talk to me, but who couldn’t ignore me after I’d said hello. So they say, “Hi, Neal.” Falling intonation at the end, not a rise that I associate with someone being happy to see me. The comma at the end seems more appropriate for an email (or for that matter, snail mail) salutation, since it’s intended to be read with the same intonation as Dear John (isn’t it?). In fact, some make the two completely parallel, and leave out the comma after the Hi.

  4. [...] herself used fun as an adjective. I remembered noticing that she’d done it near the end of her book when I was reading my review copy. When I got home, I pulled out GG’s book, and found the [...]

  5. [...] are words. In fact, it can modify whole phrases. Allow me to repeat some of what I said in my review of Grammar Girl’s book. (If Kilpatrick can recycle chunks of his material, so can I. And I don’t even get paid for [...]

  6. [...] rule is really just a matter of style. I don’t agree with what she says all the time (see my review of her first book, and my post on funnest), but I like what she does for the most [...]

  7. [...] paraphrase this point of view briefly in this review of Fogarty’s first book. Predicative adjuncts are looking for a subject; the easiest ones to use are the overt NPs in the [...]

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