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.


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, I will eventually receive a minuscule portion of the proceeds.


  1. "If you are dangling at the end of a rope, she says, you have been hanged." Amen. "Hung" is something else entirely, whether adjective or verb.

  2. Sounds interesting, but I question the title's premise: mastering all of this arcana will not necessarily make for successful writing. Not mastering it certainly has not prevented many an author from producing -- with an editor's help, of course -- many a successful piece of writing.

  3. Ah, here's the sentiment I was looking for:

    Perfect grammar—-whether written or spoken—-never solves a problem (except the problem of imperfect grammar). It doesn't make a person more creative or a better thinker. It can't turn a bad idea into a good one, or an unclear thought into a clear one. It doesn't guarantee that we will be understood.

    -- Stuart Froman

  4. If at all possible. you should try to arrange those amazon links on one or two lines. It would eliminate the need to scroll down so far...

  5. What is this about hanging from the end of a rope? The end is safely inside the knot. When you truly do dangle from the end of a rope, as a rock-climber may, you have hung yourself, not by any means hanged yourself.

    If we're gonna go all Etymological Fallacy and such, enormity originally was merely something not normal: the negative sense probably comes from enormous wickedness, which originally was not semi-tautological.

    Finally, beware the eee, the jaws that bite, the claws that catch! (Third graf, if you are still looking.)

  6. I run a website about sentence diagramming and recently interviewed Mignon Fogarty.

    In question #5 she answers why she decided to write this book as a devotional.

    ;) Elizabeth

  7. "She wants enormity understood as a great evil rather than just a big thing."

    Of course. For a big thing, a writer should use ginormity.

  8. You might also include in your list The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, by Rodney Huddelston and Geoffrey Pullum (of Language Log). It's enormous and somewhat expensive (though it's a bargain for the amount of information you get for your money) but a shorter students' edition is available. It's not a usage manual--it's an analysis of English by two linguists who are conversant with recent advances in the field of syntax--but it's full of insights about the mechanics of English. It discusses both British and American usage. It's written very clearly, and technical terms are fully explained for those who aren't familiar with them.