America seems to be paying attention to language again. Whether you look small, where a punctuation tutorial such as Eats shoots and leaves can capture national attention, or look large, to an electorate that connected with a candidate’s eloquence, clear communication seems to have jumped a few rungs on the priority ladder.
Mignon Fogarty, a.k.a. Grammar Girl, is my favorite evidence of this resurgence in syntactical attentiveness. Her podcast,
Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, offers short weekly bursts of advice on language usage, punctuation, style and grammar, and ranked as high as number two on iTunes for podcasts. Two years after its inception, transcripts of the podcasts have been compiled for this book of the same name.
While Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing is true to its title, offering advice for writers for every step of the process, from generating topic ideas to effective proofreading tips, this is not merely a reference book for writers. Most of the information applies equally to our daily conversation, concisely clarifying routine language-related issues and tackling those little bits of linguistic friction that rub us the wrong way, or perhaps should rub us the wrong way.
Language is an interactive art, and Fogarty’s strength is her simple engagement: Her explanations sound like the urgings of a kind coworker who wants you to stop sabotaging your career by using “then” when you mean “than”, the gentle guidance of a friend who understands the intricacies of where the comma goes in relation to quotation marks and parentheses. Her tone is easy and informative, which will be a relief to anyone who associates “proper English” with condescending know-it-alls who think that knowledge of “whom” separates the learned from the layperson. Best of all, she writes with enthusiasm, sometimes sounding like she’s settling a bet rather than disseminating knowledge.
Fogarty’s writing style seems to be influenced by the podcast format: Because many of her topics come from letters from listeners, her responses are always focused on a real and active audience. There isn’t any sense that she is simply explaining the rules; she seems to genuinely want her audience to learn. This is not your father’s grammar book: Fogarty speaks to a 21st century audience, her short pieces steeped with modern pop culture references and a bit of retro fun: She uses Star Trek’s “Borg” as an example of a singular collective noun (the Borg, she explains, are a sect with no sense of individuality, acting always as a collective); she calls out lessons from seminal language resource Schoolhouse Rocks (an underappreciated educational influence from a generation ago), and name drops Coldplay and the Black Eyed Peas when discussing whether band names are singular or plural.
The subject matter isn’t new – the crux of every clarification Fogarty offers has surely been covered by another volume in the reference section of the book store – but considering how the same issues remain (e.g., the consistent confusion about when to use me, myself, or I), further tutelage is apparently necessary. Included in this volume are clear explanations of many common day-to-day usage questions, from the proper response to the simple question, “How are you?” (She thoroughly explains the reason that “I’m good” is every bit as acceptable as “I’m well”) to helpful mnemonic tricks for remembering commonly confused items (“i.e.” means “in other words”, and both begin with “i”; “e.g.” means “example”, both start with “e”.)
The book also examines contemporary language concerns, such as the increased use of “woman” in place of “female”: Nancy Pelosi’s election as Speaker of the House had many news agencies reporting that she was “the first woman Speaker of the House”, a phrase that sounded both awkward and incorrect since one would never say, “the first man Speaker of the House”. Fortunately, Fogarty chimed in and settled the matter. (As long as the gender is being used as an adjective, it should be “female”.)
Like many grammar and usage books, the advice is most enjoyable when consumed in small doses rather than as a linear reading experience—short bursts of this type of information pique curiosity and comprehension. Fogarty’s success with the podcast, and the value of Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, is her ability to effectively communicate the essential information in a way that holds the reader’s attention long enough to set the record straight without causing involuntary flashbacks to the tedium of junior high English classes.
Whether you are a grammar-phobe seeking guidance, a parent looking for a tutorial that your kids will enjoy (and therefore use) or a writer seeking a fun reference manual for frustrating recurring questions, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing will likely satisfy.
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