Saturday, June 6, 2009

Down to the Very Grassroots of English Grammar and Usage

Among the English grammar-and-usage reference books that have come out in the United States and the United Kingdom these past few years, hardly has there been one that simply promised good, old traditional instruction on how to achieve good English. Not a few of the titles seem to be more interested in bashing the traditional rules of English usage than in teaching them, like Mark Liberman and Geoffrey K. Pullum’s Far from the Madding Gerund and Other Dispatches from Language Log and Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman’s Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language. They debunk many of the traditional rules of English so gleefully and so mercilessly that it’s hard not to entertain the thought that their authors are actually playing to the gallery so their books can make it to the nonfiction bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic.

And why not? A book that—of all things!—dwells on the virtues on the comma and other punctuation marks, Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves, had made it to The New York Times nonfiction bestseller lists and had stayed there for so many weeks and had likewise been a runaway bestseller in the author’s homeland—England, the very place from which English had sprung to become the world’s global language! It’s therefore not surprising that there had been a dizzying rush—no, a stampede—of linguists and English professors and journalists wanting to capitalize on this sudden public euphoria in relearning the basics of English and avoiding its pitfalls.

One notable exception to this authorial stampede is, as I reported in Jose Carillo’s English Forum last week, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse by Ben Yagoda, an American English professor. Despite the vicious-sounding title of his book, Yagoda is no gleeful assassin of the English language unlike some authors in the genre; instead, as Publisher’s Weekly had so aptly put it, Yagoda uses the parts of speech as signposts as “he charts an amiable path between those critics for whom any alterations to established grammar are hateful and those who believe whatever people use in speech is by default acceptable.”

There’s actually another book that I was about to add to Ben Yagoda’s league as a congenial, forthright, and unpretentious body of instruction for navigating the fundamentals and niceties of the English language—Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. It caught my attention because, like Patricia T. O’Conner’s Woe is I and Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves, it has the distinction of making it to The New York Times bestseller list for paperback advice books, reaching the No. 9 slot after its mid-2008 release. This was on the heels of Mignon Fogarty’s sensational free weekly “Grammar Girl” podcasts—reportedly downloaded over 20,000,000 times—on the most common mistakes people make when communicating in English.

Make no mistake about it: I think the supreme virtue of Mignon Fogarty’s book and the primary reason for its marketing success is its unabashed, unapologetic willingness to go down to the very grassroots of English grammar and usage—that stage where the learner of the language still has to grapple with the grammatical and semantic difference between the articles “a” and “an,” the verbs “bring” and “take,” or the expressions “feeling bad” and “feeling badly.”

Consider this passage—one of hundreds of what Mignon Fogarty calls “quick and dirty tips”—in the first chapter of the book:


“Interviewers often ask if people are afraid to write to me, and the answer, sadly, is yes. I get a lot of e-mail messages in which people (even my mother!) include blanket requests for forgiveness for any unidentified grammar errors. I feel bad about that—my goal isn’t to make people self-conscious or afraid.

“In addition, I get skewered when I make an error (or perceived error) myself. So when I was quoted in an article saying, ‘I feel bad about that,’ a lot of readers saw a chance to send me a gotcha e-mail message about using bad to modify feel. They maintained that I should have said, ‘I feel badly about that.’ I’m not perfect, and I make lots of errors (especially in live interviews), but this isn’t one of them.

“The quick and dirty tip is that it is correct to say you feel bad when you are expressing an emotion. To say ‘I feel badly’ could imply that there’s something wrong with your sense of touch. Every time I hear people say, ‘I feel badly,’ I imagine them in a dark room having trouble feeling their way around with numb fingers.”

But, we may well ask, who could be the market for such very basic, almost rock-bottom instruction on English usage—instruction that seems more appropriate for entry-level learners of English than for those whose first language is English? Judging from the immense popularity of Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips in the United States, this seems to be the answer: the typical or average American, whose English vocabulary reportedly runs to only about 14,000 words against the 20,000-25,000 words that a typical native-English-speaking college graduate needs to be functionally literate in English (a very sore point to educated Americans, I know, but there it is). This explains why the Oprah Winfrey Show had hailed Mignon Fogarty’s grammar podcasts as having “come up with clever ideas to help even the most grammatically challenged person remember the rules,” and why Newsday had gushed that the podcasts had “sparked what you might call a worldwide, syntax-driven fiesta.”

As to Mignon Fogarty’s book itself, however, I won’t argue against its well-deserved market success, but I’m not too sure now if I should put it in the same league as Ben Yagoda’s When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It. It’s just that I find the level of English instruction of Grammar Girl much too basic; indeed, if you are comfortable with the level of English being used in this Forum, I don’t think you could stand more than a few pages of Mignon’s “quick and dirty tips.” For the seriously English-challenged, however, there’s no doubt in my mind that Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing is a heaven-sent, eminently useful book that’s worth reading from cover to cover.

Read an excerpt from Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

Read Literalminded’s review of Grammar Girl's Quick & Dirty Tips for Better Writing

Read Lisa Shea’s review of Grammar Girl's Quick & Dirty Tips for Better Writing

Have a look at Mignon Fogarty’s "Grammar Girl" website

Listen to the Grammar Girl podcast on “All Right” versus “Alright”

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