Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

It’s a Word! It’s a Phrase! It’s Grammar Girl!

Posted by Neal on February 1, 2008

For a while I’d been noticing a podcast called Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips to Clean Up Your Writing when I browsed through the podcasts at iTunes. I never subscribed to it because first of all, I’m pretty comfortable with my grammar, and second, I figured it would be the same old things grammar and writing guides are always telling you: don’t use the passive voice; don’t use hopefully as a sentential adverb; in fact, avoid adverbs wherever possible. But I finally got curious enough to check out a few episodes, and what a surprise! The podcasts present traditional grammar rules, provide nonjudgmental observations of what’s actually happening in the language when the rules don’t reflect common usage, and give practical advice on what to do when faced with these mismatches. Even better, Grammar Girl will get into linguistic topics when doing so will help explain a grammar point. And just a couple of episodes ago, she talked about a linguistic topic apparently just because it was interesting all by itself.

Grammar Girl is Mignon Fogarty (no Googlegänger for her, I’m guessing), and it’s no wonder I kept seeing her podcast on iTunes. Since its debut in 2006, it’s risen to #1 on the top iTunes podcasts, and has won Fogarty an appearance on Oprah (the show, that is, not Oprah herself) and a book contract. I’ve now listened to almost 30 of the 93 existing episodes. I tend to bypass the ones just about punctuation, but have made a point of listening to the ones on hot-button pet-peeve issues. Below are a handful that give a good picture of Fogarty’s approach. The links will take you to a page where you can download the MP3, or just read the transcript.

First, here are a few that give straight-up, by-the-book answers to grammar questions. By the books, I should say: Fogarty consults multiple references for (as far as I can tell) every question.

  • Episode 75: GG talks about compound possession — in other words, coordinated possessives such as the one in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Why isn’t it Bill’s and Ted’s? Should it be? This is the topic Fogarty covered on Oprah. She doesn’t go into the really tricky cases, where one or both of the possessives is a pronoun, like this one.
  • Episode 64: GG covers you and I vs. you and me, noting that people who never say you and me, even when it’s correct, have probably been made so nervous by corrections of sentences like You and me should go that they hypercorrect when they go to say things like between you and me.
  • Episode 44: GG gives a clear explanation of who/whom with a good mnemonic for what the object of a verb is.

Next up, a few episodes where Fogarty presents traditional grammar rules that are either out of date with the current state of the language, or were baloney to begin with:

  • Episode 79: GG affirms that after verbs such as be, become, and seem, any pronouns you use have to be in the subjective case; thus, it is I, not it’s me. After presenting the rule, she acknowledges that most listeners are asking, “Is she serious?” and says that even most grammarians will “forgive” breaking this rule. I like how she subtly conveys that this is not a matter of which way is the right way, but that the grammar is evolving; and gives some good advice:
    I hate it when language is in flux like this because it’s easy to get confused. But … I believe it’s best to know the traditional rules and then if you decide to break them you can do so knowingly and with conviction.

  • Episode 76: This was the first pet-peeve episode I listened to, and was impressed that GG didn’t just say, “Hopefully can only mean ‘in a hopeful manner’; it can’t mean ‘I hope that’!” She told about this rule, but then went on to raise the objection that never seems to occur to people who live by this rule, that you could raise a similar objection about honestly. Why don’t people ever complain that a sentence like Honestly, Squigley is never on time! has to mean that Squigley is always tardy in an honest manner? (Squigley, BTW, is one of Fogarty’s gender-neutral names that she uses in example sentences.) Then she ends with the usual dose of practicality: Don’t use hopefully as a sentential adverb unless you know you’ll be able to defend your choice; otherwise, the less enlightened will dismiss you as an ignoramus.
  • Episode 58: GG sums up the rule of not beginning a sentence with however (unless it’s introducing a fused relative construction, as in However you want to do it is OK with me). She points out that there is really no basis for this rule, and debunks arguments that flouting the rule leads to ambiguity. And after all is said and done, she concludes with the same practical advice she gives for hopefully (and for that matter, ending sentences with prepositions): Even though there is not (and never was) anything wrong with starting a sentence with however, don’t do it, because enough people believe it’s wrong that it’s better just to avoid the conflict. She makes one recommendation, though, that I don’t think would fly with a true believer in the however rule. She says that one quick and dirty fix is to hook the sentence beginning with however to the previous sentence with a semicolon, like this: The way was tough; however, we kept going. I think the true believer would say, “Ha! Nice try, but you still have however beginning an independent clause!”
  • Episode 46: GG gives a fairly accurate description of the passive voice. By her definition, He suffered and died would be incorrectly tagged as passive, since the subject is not taking action, but for a “Quick and Dirty” tip, it’s probably OK. Who knows, maybe she’ll cover cases like this in a future episode. The best thing about this episode, though, is that she takes pains to say that passive voice is grammatical, but that it’s not always the best way to phrase things. Unlike the typical ranter who claims to be driven crazy by reading passive voice, GG makes sure to point out that when you don’t know who performed the action, or you don’t want to say, or the thing affected by the object is more important, passive voice might well be the way to go. Way to go!

And lastly, for some episodes in which Fogarty gets into some linguistic points:

  • Episode 31: GG answers a listener’s question of why the line in “Joy to the World” is the Lord is come instead of the Lord has come. She doesn’t just stop after noting that is come is an archaic form. She goes on to explain that some verbs, known as unaccusatives, used to do this in English, and in fact still do in languages such as French. That’s about as deep as she goes, since going further would violate the “quick” part of her mission, but she provides several sources for more information at the end of the transcript.
  • Episode 63: GG talks about by accident and on accident. This is where GG really impressed me: Whereas a grammar maven would simply have said, “On accident is wrong,” GG went and found a linguistic study on the topic. This was easily the most interesting of all the podcasts, and GG provides a link to the study in the transcript. I won’t say any more about it here, because I’ll be writing more about it in my next post.
  • Episode 91: You may have read about this on Language Log; it’s the use of yo as a third-person singular gender-neutral pronoun (instead of some variant of he/she or the often-impugned but long-attested and quite useful they). This episode wasn’t any kind of tip to improve one’s writing at all; it was purely of linguistic interest. None of the commenters seemed to mind, though. I hope GG will have more episodes like this one.

So Grammar Girl, sorry to have misjudged you. Every writer on grammar ought to be as open-minded and even-handed as you.

3 Responses to “It’s a Word! It’s a Phrase! It’s Grammar Girl!”

  1. Viola said

    GG rocks! Thank you for introducing her to your readers and bringing up some of these important grammatical points. GG makes it easy for the people who need to brush up on grammar(most of the general population) to understand how language has evolved, what is currently acceptable, and in which circles some forms are acceptable and other forms are not. A reader or listener also gets a feel for the renegade side of her that expresses that some things should be OK (at least in her opinion,) but are still not technically acceptable. GG has great reads, especially for the laymen of the world of linguistics. I hope (instead of hopefully) we all get some practical use from this blog. Thanks again, Neal.

  2. […] 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, […]

  3. […] of the topics is levelheaded and she even goes into linguistics territory at times (see my review of her podcast for details). In her new book, she emphasizes that often, what many people think of as a grammar […]

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