John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Devoted to grammar

Let’s suppose you are an aspirant to the Priesthood of All Grammarians. You will, of course, have the sacred texts, MWDEU, Garner on Usage, perhaps First Fowler and Second Fowler (also known as the Revised Standard Fowler). But you will also be in need of a breviary for your daily devotions.

Now there is one. Mignon Fogarty, whom you may already know as Grammar Girl, has just published The Grammar Devotional: Daily Tips for Successful Writing from Grammar Girl (Henry Holt, 234 pages, $15).

Like her previous book, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, the Devotional is more a collection of tapas dishes than entrees: whether you should use a comma or not with too (OK for particular emphasis, otherwise not), short quizzes (peak, peek, or pique?), word search games (find the paired British and American spellings). All good fun. (Not as fond, myself, of the whimsical cartoon illustrations of Squiggly and Aardvark, her examplars in illustrative sentences, but you could have guessed that from my congenital crankiness.)

On some points, Ms. Fogarty is standing firm. She holds the line on distinguishing between due to and because of. She wants enormity understood as a great evil rather than just a big thing. If you are dangling at the end of a rope, she says, you have been hanged.

But she is not rigid, and she describes available options, depending on how fastidious you want to be. On lend and loan, for example, she points out that in American English, “most language experts consider the words interchangeable,” but “some sticklers disagree.”

There is a lot of fine miscellaneous information: a short history of sentence diagramming, tributes to Samuel Johnson and James Murray and other “language rock stars,” a list of the order of adjectives in English (opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material, purpose).

It is all, as she says forthrightly, “quick and dirty.” For further explanation, you will have to turn to the sacred texts. But if you are, for example, an English teacher, The Grammar Devotional would be a handy book to have in the classroom for those occasions on which you have to summon up a quick response. And, since Ms. Fogarty is admirably clear and direct for a non-specialist reader, The Grammar Devotional would be an apt choice at Christmas for the student or aspiring writer in your house.



DISCLAIMER FOR THE BENEFIT OF THE FEDERAL TRADE COMMISSION:

I received a review copy of The Grammar Devotional from the publisher. In addition, if a reader of this blog should order a copy of it or the other books listed below from Amazon.com, I will eventually receive a minuscule portion of the proceeds.