Mortal Syntax by June Casagrande

Grammar humor, like toilet humor, is not for everyone, particularly not those who take grammar very seriously. In her introduction to Mortal Syntax, June Casagrande expresses hope that her book would help readers embrace “I feel bad” and “went missing” as valid phrases: “And that they would see that incomplete sentences can sometimes be used to brilliant effect. And sometimes not.”

Consider yourself warned. Casagrande loves sentences fragments, and will not hesitate to use them. If that offends you – if you are, in fact, something of a grammar snob – than you probably need this book more than anyone.

Casagrande’s major beef with grammar snobs is not that they value correct usage, but rather that they value what they think is correct, and only rarely bother to substantiate their opinions before berating someone for making a mistake. As the author of a newspaper column on grammar, Casagrande has all too frequently been the target of their surprisingly error-filled ire.

In one example, a reader responds, “Did you mean am I not instead of aren’t I? Perhaps this is meant to be a humoprous error.” So great is the authority of self-appointed grammar snobs that, upon first reading, I actually thought humoprous was a word I’d never heard of, possibly referring to humorous prose. But no, it was a typo, and the reader’s assertion that “aren’t I” can only be used a joke is, as Casagrande subsequently explains, wrong.

Don’t be fooled by the book’s diminutive size and profusion of two-page chapters; there’s a lot of material covered here, including such hotly debated topics as the mis/use of “hopefully”, “nauseous”, “irregardless”, and apostrophes following words that end in “s”. Since its longest running joke is that the reader – or even the author herself — may abandon the text at any moment for something more important, “such as the Thursday night My Name is Earl and The Office line up”, each entry is short and simple while still providing an explanation of the usage in question.

Chapters begin with an example sentence, followed by a one-line indication of whether or not it is correct. Verdicts like “okay, but you can do better”, “um, good luck”, and “who cares?” are not going to provide you with instant closure, although other rulings are decidedly unambiguous, such as “so very wrong” as in the case of “The baby ran down the beach butt naked.”

By and large, this tactic works. Casagrande recognizes that people learn best when they are entertained, so most entries have a funny framing story that grounds the material and a usage example that will get the reader’s attention. She mocks herself, and other “grammar mavens” with great gusto and delivers some wonderfully clever quotes in the process: “[g]rammar is a lot like sex. If you’re lucky you’ll make it through your entire life without someone pointing out everything you’re doing wrong.” Her writing is so funny that while efficiency is lost as a result of her approach, it’s a worthwhile sacrifice. Not since Schoolhouse Rock has grammar instruction been such fun.

One of her greatest talents lies in selecting passages of grammar manuals that are unintentionally hilarious in their vitriol. In one memorable excerpt, James Kilpatrick writes, “To say that something – anything – remains to be seen is to make the most inane, the most banal, the most stupid observation in the annals of prophecy.” Frankly, it’s one of the less-insulting decisions from the experts referenced here who condemn usages as “vulgar” and “uneducated” without hesitation.

Casagrande occasionally gets carried away, and the chapter on “champing at the bit” instead of “chomping” is weak, since it consists almost entirely of the bracket story and never gives a clear idea of the difference between the two verbs. Her tendency to end chapters with a tongue-in-cheek use of whatever construction was discussed is cute in small doses, but becomes so predictable that it quickly loses its charm. (“That’s why you can get nauseous if certain people who are less than peaceful tell you to choose a diet of words that is less than healthy.”)

If you’re looking for a reference tool, Mortal Syntax is the wrong choice. There’s no index, which means if you want to go over the passage on copular verbs, you’ll have to remember that it’s discussed in the context of “I feel bad”, and then locate that entry, which is so circuitous that it would take you less time to Google your question and come up with the answer.

However, the book’s appeal lies in its desire to target those who would never think to buy a complete grammar manual – that is to say, the vast majority of the population. It’s ultimately an egalitarian attempt to help those who want to make their speech more articulate, a feather-duster for the reader’s vocabulary, and an impassioned plea that language snobs use “their peevish powers for more worthy pursuits, such as making life difficult for SUV drivers.”

RATING 7 / 10