Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Your role in National Grammar Day

Admittedly, National Grammar Day was cooked up by Martha Brockenbrough as a stunt. She wanted to publicize her book. This year, Mignon Fogarty (you know, Grammar Girl) has taken over, and she has two books to flog. I don’t object to this for a nanosecond. First off, it’s fun. And both of them are agreeable people who offer sensible advice. I salute them. (If I should find a publisher for my book on editing (more than 30,000 words to date in a very rough draft), I will push it as shamelessly as you can imagine.)

But National Grammar Day can also be more than a stunt. One way to make it substantial — no, not by acting as an officious prig and peever — is to practice the craft to produce more effective writing.

Item: Hire an editor. Hundreds of us have been driven out of our jobs by the drop in revenues for publications and by the pernicious misapprehension that no one really cares any longer for accuracy, clarity, and precision in prose. If you have hiring authority, or influence on someone who has hiring authority, hire a damn copy editor. You know, or ought to know, that you need one. Probably more than one. If you are not in hiring authority but are working on a manuscript or a Web site, hire a freelancer. You’re not that good on your own. There are many able people looking for work, and you would benefit from their expertise.

Item: Get yourself some good advice. If you were taught bogus “rules” in school, or if no one ever taught you any rules at all, you need additional education. Buy Garner’s Modern American Usage and/or Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. Get hold of Joseph Williams’s Style. Start reading what the linguists say at Language Log. Read through the posts on this site’s blogroll. Hell, read my back posts. Are you going to be a serious writer or are you content to be some schmuck who can’t put a noun against a verb without embarrassing himself?

Item: Writing is a craft, people. You learn it by practicing it. You want anyone to see that first birdhouse or shoeshine box you built in carpentry class or that first dress you ever sewed? You want anyone to hear that first work you learned on the piano or the clarinet? Practice, practice, if you want to get to Carnegie Hall, and brace yourself to embarrass yourself along the way. Stay humble, be open to learning more than you already know, and keep writing. If you actually have something to say, you will find a way to say it. But find someone whose taste and honesty you can rely on to tell you what works and what doesn’t.

Item: To go beyond simple grammar and usage, if you want to write with integrity and earn the loyalty of your readers, you cannot simply repeat statements of fact that you have made no attempt to verify — however well they match your personal preferences. You cannot crib from other writers without giving them credit. You cannot make things up. You cannot afford to bore your readers with slack, unfocused, careless writing. You are imposing on your reader’s time; do not waste it.

Item: I started in journalism after my junior year in high school, when I began work in the summers for Lowell and Jean Denton at the Flemingsburg Gazette in Fleminsgburg, Kentucky. I spent four years as an undergraduate at Michigan State and six years as a graduate student at Syracuse, six and a half years at The Cincinnati Enquirer, and nearly twenty-three years at The Baltimore Sun. I quote Chaucer at the end of the semester in my editing class at Loyola: “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.” I still learn something new about the language and writing and editing every day. So can you, but you must be willing to look for it.


If a reader should order any of these books from by clicking on the links, I will eventually receive a minuscule portion of the proceeds.


  1. Who will you be hiring to edit your book?

    PS: Check the spelling in item five.

  2. John, it should also be disclosed that I founded the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar in part because I wanted custom lunch boxes. Shortly thereafter, CafePress discontinued selling lunch boxes. I've never fully recovered.

  3. Virginia Merch├ínMarch 3, 2010 at 9:53 AM

    Each of the items is so exquisite and so worthy of attention. I'll try to honour this National Grammar Day with mine.

    Thank you!

  4. Writing and reporting are not taught as craft in school.
    College professors do not want to educate carpenters.
    -- Whacked newspaper copy editor

  5. Why do writers at NYT use "Washington" when they mean "Washington, D.C."? There is a Washington State. It sounds arrogant and condescending, and it just isn't accurate.

  6. So do writers at the Associated Press and just about everywhere else. That's because a dateline, the location from which the story is reported, is a city, not a state. And Washington, D.C., is by longstanding newspaper convention, is one of the cities that stands alone in a dateline, without a state name or other supplemental identifier.

  7. Thank you, John, for a thoughtful approach to the day. I generally cringe when these things come around (also, so-called supposed "National Punctuation Day"), because it's not as if we need more reasons to have people trot out their hoary (and often mistaken) complaints about others' usage. Do you read Gabe Doyle's blog? He had this to say for National Grammar day:

    "My problem with National Grammar Day (and most popular grammarians in general) is that it suggests that the best part of studying language is the heady rush of telling people that they shouldn't say something. But if you really study language, you know that there's so much more to it than that."


  8. Is there a hire-an-editor model that works for the economics of blogging? As any reader knows, most blogs would benefit from a good copy-editing. And most bloggers would probably love to have a pro improve their writing. The trick, then, is making the economics work.

    With the rise of blogging, much of the value that was once concentrated in a few media outlets has been dispersed across countless blogs. The total value is greater than before (the blogs created more value than they displaced), but each blog contributes such a small portion of the total that most, being in the “long tail,” make no money. How then can a typical blogger pay for copy editing?

    Is there some service model that can be sustained when the demand for (and the ability to pay for) that service has been dispersed so widely? Is there a way, for example, to concentrate the dispersed, long-tail need for editing to the point where hiring an editor to meet that need becomes affordable?


  9. Ah, the old "Prig and Peever." I'm sure I've been to that pub. Not the most welcoming place -- straight-backed chairs, plain white-washed walls, limited selection of beers, strangely stilted conversation. But at least when you ordered a pint you knew you were going to get exactly a pint, dammit.