Thursday, August 14, 2008

Q&A with Grammar Girl

Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty has a new book out, Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

A few weeks back, I did a Q&A with her for my newspaper column, but I had to trim a lot to make it fit. (I realize only now that I made a bad cut. I left out a part in which she says she supports sometimes using "their" to refer to singular antecedent. But I left in a sentence in which she did just that. The result? You guessed it. Angry reader e-mails.)

Anyhoo, here's the complete, never-before-seen full text of my Q&A with Grammar Girl.

JC: Why are so many people either indifferent to grammar or downright hostile to it?

MF: I suspect those are the people who have been terrorized by a grammar stickler at some point. Someone took pleasure in using grammar to make them feel stupid, so it turned them off to the whole idea of grammar. For example, imagine a person who took a long time to write out a forum comment on some contentious topic only to be slapped down by someone who doesn't even address his or her ideas, but instead writes, "You typed 'their' instead of 'they're.' You're clearly an idiot and don't know anything about foreign policy." That kind of thing doesn't make people grammar fans.

JC: A lot of people feel as though they should "know" grammar -- that they're deficient if they don't know it all. Do you have any words for them?

MF: Well, I do believe it's important to be able to construct a solid sentence because, whether you like it or not, people will judge you on your writing. But nobody could possibly remember all the grammar and usage rules. We're talking about thousands of pages of material. I'm looking at my bookshelf and I have about 30 different reference books on grammar and usage. And then there's the problem of all the contentious "rules" where there isn't a simple answer. So whether you feel deficient or not, I 'd say it's important to invest in a few good reference books and if you aren't sure about something, look it up. It only takes a few seconds.

JC: What are three (or five or six) tidbits of grammar knowledge that people find most helpful?

MF: Knowing how to identify a subject and object is useful because so many other choices depend on it--"lay" versus "lie," "who" versus "whom," and "sit" versus "set," for example. (A subject takes action, an object has action taken on it.)

I also think it's helpful to be aware of the differences between American English and British English because it's common to see both on the Web. For example, in American English periods go inside of quotation marks, and in British English periods go outside of quotation marks. And in Britain, it's more common to say "have got" (e.g., Have you got any spare change?), whereas in America it's more common to just use "have" (e.g., Do you have any spare change?). Things like that are good to know.Beyond that, people often ask usage questions: "affect" versus "effect," "lend" versus "loan," "may" versus "might," "more than" versus "over," stuff like that.

JC: Is there a grammar war going on? What side are you on?

MF: Before I started the Grammar Girl podcast, I was unaware of the grammar wars; but after writing about grammar for a couple of years and receiving angry e-mails from people on both sides of the battle, I definitely believe there is a war. There are people who believe nothing should ever change [prescriptivists], and there are people who believe anything goes [descriptivists]. They would both probably object to such a cut-and-dried description of their beliefs, but those are the broad strokes.

I try to give practical advice, so I have found myself on both sides of the spectrum. For example, I angered people when I said I thought it was OK to use "their" instead of "him or her" or "he" to refer to a single person of unknown sex; and I got a deluge of hate mail when I said that "irregardless" is a word. Mind you, I didn't say people should use it, I just said it's in every dictionary I checked and therefore qualifies as a word--a bad, nonstandard word, but something that exists in the English language. You'd have thought I said it was OK to kill puppies. On the other hand, I don't see any reason to allow people to modify absolutes; for example, I don't think people should say "very dead" or "very unique." Something is either dead or it isn't; it's unique or it isn't. I got less hate mail about that, so maybe the descriptivists are less militant.

JC: Do you believe people want grammar rules? Why or why not?

MF: I do believe people want grammar rules. I believe they desperately want grammar rules. There are so few things you deal with as an adult that are black and white. Language seems as if it should be straightforward, and writing would be so much easier if there were one set of rules. If it wasn't OK to refer to a single person as "their" 100 years ago, why would that change? Who are these language experts who decide that the rules are only suggestions? Are they the same people who came up with "speed Monopoly" rules? It can be incredibly frustrating for people who just want to follow the rules in their cover letter so they can get a job, or don't want some grammar snob tsk-tsking them.

It's also hard to teach kids about grammar and usage without giving them firm rules. It's a lot easier for a fifth-grade teacher to tell his or her students that you should never end a sentence with a preposition than to explain the difference between unnecessary prepositions and phrasal verbs that happen to contain prepositional words. But then those kids grow up thinking they know certain "rules" when they actually have it all wrong. There are a lot of reasons it would be nice if there were more real grammar rules, but it would also be nice if books wrote themselves and ice cream were free on weekends.

JC: Is there any usage matter on which you've recently changed your position? What was it and why?

MF: I used to believe it was important to hyphenate "e-mail," but compound words regularly evolve from hyphenated form to closed compound (i.e., "email"), and sometimes they even revert back to hyphenated form over time. Back in September, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary released [according to] a new edition and dropped the hyphen from approximately 16,000 words, including the hyphen in e-mail. The more I researched hyphens, the more I realized they are a particularly cagey punctuation mark. I continue to hyphenate, but I no longer believe the "e-mail" versus "email" debate is worth getting worked up over.

JC: Do you get grief from grammar snobs and, if so, what are of the things they say to you?

MF: Most of the people who write to me are pretty polite when they point out errors or perceived errors. The funny thing is that the more rude someone is, the more likely they are to be wrong.

JC: I spend a lot of time trying to help people prioritize their grammar learning. That is: Don't worry about knowing whether to capitalize 'master's of business administration.' Worry about danglers instead. What's one issue people should worry less about and one they should worry more about?

MF: People should worry more about spelling. Typos happen, but there's no excuse for lots of misspellings in a final document. It's shocking how many things go out riddled with spelling errors. As I said before, I think hyphens in compound words tend to be pretty arbitrary, and I agree that capitalization is also low on the totem pole, although I confess it does bug me a little bit when people arbitrarily capitalized nouns for no reason. On the other hand, there was a time when nouns were capitalized in English--most of the nouns are capitalized in the Constitution--so you can't even say that keeping nouns lowercase in English is an age-old rule.

JC: Why do you like grammar (assuming you do)?

MF: I hate it! Just kidding. I couldn't resist. I think I initially became interested in grammar because I thought it would be a set of hard-and-fast rules that I could learn and then be more secure in the world. But the more I read about the controversies and history, the more fascinating it became. I know it's nerdy, but I honestly enjoy reading usage guides.

JC: Are you good at learning history? Geography? Math? Science? Economics? (Subtext: Is your grammar savvy compensated for by a deficiency in another subject matter?)

MF: I love history, but I'm terrible at math. Just horrible. There are some people who have a sense of numbers, and I am not one of them. Oddly, I have a graduate degree in biology, and I often had people check the math in my formulas before I would mix solutions in the lab so I wouldn't cause an accident. I'm clumsy too; the lab was a bad place for me.

JC: Besides a good dictionary, what one grammar or style book should everyone own? (Besides yours and mine, of course!)

MF: Garner's Modern American Usage. It's the most complete, straightforward usage guide I know of.

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Joel said...

"Irregardless" is an abomination. "Very dead," on the other hand, used in moderation, can be quite effective. Has she never seen The Princess Bride?

Hoo hoo hoo! Look who knows so much, heh? Well, it just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead. There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. . . .

I'm not hating. I'm just politely suggesting she might have some messed up priorities or core values or what-not. ;-P But at least she's come around on the "email."

Joel said...

On the solid sentence thing: one of the best things that ever happened to me was a seventh grade English teacher who every day gave us a convoluted sentence to diagram. Each sentence was a puzzle and no matter how complex it appeared, it was ultimately solvable--but fun.

Similarly, Math and English always seemed fundamentally similar to me and more a game than a chore. English, IMO, is freer and more colorful (though, especially from what I hear about the search for a unified field theory, I don't mean to make a categorical judgment, if numbers are more your thing).

My point (okay, I admit, it's more a pet peeve than an innocuous assertion) is that we err precisely in rendering (note that that's the same term we use to describe the abstraction of animal fat) grammar, algebra, languages of all sorts, etc. as a set of rules instead of appreciating them as the playgrounds that they are, or ought to be.

June Casagrande said...

If I were the boss of the language, my first order of royal business would be to slash "irregardless" out of the dictionaries. Alas, I'm not. And all my efforts to build support for my make-me-boss-of-the-language campaign could be termed very dead indeed.

: )

June Casagrande said...

No. 1: I'm very impressed that you diagrammed sentences. Wish I'd had that benefit.

No. 2: Re algebra, grammar, foreign languages: Yes! Totally! That's how I feel, too. I suppose they can't compare as fun to Doom or whatever it is the kids are playing these days. But they could certainly be presented as something besides rote lists of rules, etc. "Playgrounds" indeed!

The reason I asked her the question is that I'm trying to confirm a theory. No, not right-brain left-brain stuff. My theory is that I was dropped on my head as a child in the exact spot that allows one to retain history. I'm a history MORON. Like incapable of getting it. I love math. I love science. I feel I have strong aptitudes for both and for language, too. But I swear I don't know what year the battle of 1812 was fought. (All right, slight exaggeration. But I truly do not know by whom or why -- even though my husband has 'splained it to me at least two or three times.)

goofy said...

There are people who believe nothing should ever change [prescriptivists], and there are people who believe anything goes [descriptivists]. They would both probably object to such a cut-and-dried description of their beliefs, but those are the broad strokes.

I would certainly object to that. That characterization just makes things worse.

Over 30 usage books just so you can write confidently in your own language? The 18th century has a lot to answer for.

June Casagrande said...

Actually, I grapple with how to describe these terms for people unfamiliar with them. Any suggestions?

goofy said...

I'd say, borrowing from wikipedia:

prescriptivism: the codification and the enforcement of rules governing how a language should be used. These rules aren't necessarily old, and they don't necessarily reflect how the language is used, they're just the rules in the usage books. For instance, as I'm sure you know, "their" with a singular antecedent has been part of English since the 1300s, and the rule against it arose in the 1700s. So if you believe that singular "they" is wrong, it's hard to see how that means you think "nothing should ever change."

descriptive linguistics: the analysis and description of how language is used by a speech community. In this view, the rules of language can be discovered by examining the evidence (ie how the language is used). Rules exist, but they vary depending on region, dialect, register, etc. For instance, in most formal written English, cojoined pronouns take the same case: "take a photo of me and her." But in other kinds of English, conjoined pronouns are impervious to case: "take a photo of her and I." Describing these facts doesn't mean you think "anything goes" - clearly rules still apply, but the rules differ depending on context.

June Casagrande said...

Thank you.

Though that'll never fit in one of my 600-word columns, the first sentence of each seems to work pretty well.


Joel said...

James Burke has done several series (I've seen episodes of "The Day the Universe Changed" and "Connections") for the BBC that I think epitomize history well done. If you haven't seen any of his work, I strongly encourage it. He shows history as an intricately woven and truly human tapestry and he's incredibly funny, especially given our stereotypes of scientists and historians, let alone science historians.

I absolutely hated history until I got to college. However, the high school I attended offered a "Humanities" class, which was mostly literature but included some philosophy, religion, art, history, etc., and I loved it. When I got to college, it turned out that one of my advisors was an excellent history teacher and that that Humanities class (my Humanities teacher was also extraordinary) was closer to what History should have been. Indeed, throughout American History, my freshman year, we had a great time mocking the typical high school history class and its skewed emphasis on dates and battles and trivia and such. I still remember Dr. Nelson's maxim: "Real History is Intellectual History: what the people believed and acted upon . . ." .

History, contrary to what is still, I fear, so often taught, is about things that matter to real people. The dates and other minutiae are merely signposts pointing to more significant cultural convergences and crises. Since history is about people, it should make more than passing reference to great ideas; to human emotion and imagination, need and aspiration; to scientific development and popular entertainment; to language and art--in short, to those forces that shape and reflect civilization as we experience it. History should help us understand what led to and followed from the treaties, the wars, the alliances, the policies, the revolutions--and not just superficially, but in the hearts and minds of men and women, both those who held power and those subject to it; and not just in a way that makes sense to a military buff or politico but to the rest of us normal (ish) folk too. History should help us answer "Why?" or at least lead us to the point of honestly confronting that enigma. Sadly [stomping loudly on soap box] we tend instead to obsess over mere chronology and an abstraction of military and "political" (as it is most narrowly misunderstood) details. Not that that stuff is entirely unimportant, but it is only a part. History is tautologically relevant, interesting and even entertaining; if it's not, it's not being done correctly.

My theory, if you'll pardon my being so bold, is that you're still feeling judged by a stubborn vestige of, let's call it, "history snobbery" that overvalues what you don't value (and probably shouldn't) and undervalues what you do value (and probably should). Indeed, to me, part of what's great about History is that it expresses the narrative impulse, a great gift we've all been given and one I'd say, from all evidence, you've stewarded well. It's our challenge and responsibility to fashion a story that makes sense--both of our own experience and of the broader experience of the species. So what if the story on my tongue sounds more like the OED or "Lost in the Funhouse" or "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" or "Jabberwocky" or St. John's Apocalypse (oh that it did indeed) than it does "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire"?

That doesn't necessarily mean that you have a good sense of history (though you may). But it at least means that you possess the fragments and framework and capacity for a brilliant sense of history; you've just been taught to fear them--to fear, that is, yourself, in all of your quirky and beautiful uniqueness. It seems to me that's a lot of what most of us learn in our industrial-age education system and guilt-based religions and technologically-focused culture: fear, aversion to genuine freedom and distrust of the creative impulse.

Rereading this, it occurs to me that I might come across preachy or condescending; and if I am, please know that the saliva-spewing sermon is directed at my own sorry ass. I'm so passionate about this because I am still battling those constricting forces and, for all the blessings I've known, still living, to a large degree, in intellectual bondage. The rambley and effusive I completely own and am not sure I should apologize for or qualify, because I'm unlikely to repent, so what's the point? :-)

June Casagrande said...

"History, contrary to what is still, I fear, so often taught, is about things that matter to real people."

This idea was first introduced to me only about a year ago and by accident. I have a friend who was a history major and I had given her my spiel about "Just can't feel any realness in questions of which men killed which men to control which piece of land in what year." She said, "History's not about that. It's about ideas."

Side note: She went to good schools.

And yes, you're right about the loosely termed history snobbery. But I can't talk about that without getting into feminist stuff, which I don't like to broadcast publicly because half the time it comes in a way I don't want on the record.

But, bottom line: History, to me, is 99% what men did--in men's ways, according to men's values and priorities.

I'm not blaming the historians. Indeed, the problem may be that it's told from a male perspective. But it may also be simply that women had a very different role.

Either way, I think it can make history less relatable to a girl.

I think that, sometimes, a boy can sit in history class and hear a snippet about what life was like for a soldier on the battle front in the American Revolution. That boy might wonder what it's like to answer that call and to endure those sacrifices. I think he may actually imagine what it's like to be lying there on a battlefield, legs blown off and sure to die of gangrene. He may actually weigh questions of valor -- "When is my country really worth my limbs or my life?" In other words, he might actually relate that to himself.

As a girl, there is exactly one detail I remember from history class. At some point in (must've been) middle school, some textbook touching on some ancient or semi-ancient culture was talking about that society's monetary system. It gave examples of what things cost. One example: A fine of one gold coin was levied as punishment for raping a slave girl.

THAT I remembered. THAT was real to me.

You've persuaded me that my friend's comment was not an isolated case of one person able to find this stuff genuinely dynamic.

But that slave girl -- a casual mention in a subordinate clause in a sentence whose main clause focused not on the violence but on the monetary punishment inflicted on the man involved -- well, that really gives you a sense of where I'm coming from.

Where does the female factor into that tidbit of history? Her POV, her experience are not even an afterthought.

That's my relationship with formal history.

(See? I TOLD you I need to be careful to keep my mouth shut about this stuff!)

Joel said...

Oh yeah. . . .

Goofy: I like your clarification but I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I still find the simplification somehow useful (though, as you said, also kinda badly wrong). I can't quite explain how I can maintain those feelings, but life is largely ambivalence, and definitions seem perpetually slippy sometimes.

June: In the spirit of this election year and in all sincerity, especially given the likely alternatives (and I do apologize if that qualification cheapens it), I would definitely vote for you, if we could. Especially if you promise grace, tolerance and at least a few hours each week of reckless verbal abandon, I rescind the qualification. Boss of the language is a big deal--is why I'm even hesitant. Lots of power. Even you might be corrupted. Actually, indeed, as I think of it, it might not be a kind thing to wish on anyone. Of course, I'd take it--though my prospects are even worse than yours.

June Casagrande said...

Actually ... it might have been a copper coin.

Joel said...

I think you've just proven my point. :-) Not wanting to completely reveal my own radicalism or political preferences (ah, who am I kidding? I'm more than willing, but just don't have the time) or to seem like a sycophant, I will only ask this: Do you think that the world is a better place if we continue along this truly sick, sad path?

What's that bit about the trouble with the world being that evil is uninhibited but the good hesitate to act?

So, not to continue in my preachy tone, but I kinda think you have to embrace your wild, uppity (please, I am so kidding and it pains me that I have to point it out but there are still too many who would say that in earnest) feminist agenda and at least try to retake what's been all buggered with testosterone. Not that testosterone is intrinsically bad, but it's not the only game in town. Thank the dear Lord, or I'd probably have killed myself by now.

But back to the story you have to tell: already you've said something more significant than most of the bullsh** that's shoved down our throats about conquest and economics and other testosterone games.

Yeah, I was actually somewhat trepidatious, when I first said it, but I'm gonna say it again and with a little more emphasis: don't let them shut you up or cover you with guilt because you don't value the nonsense they tell you is important or because they don't value what you know is.

June Casagrande said...

Thank you. I like to believe there's some meaningful stuff in those kinds of observations, but unfortunately, they're only meaningful to people already amenable to the ideas. Trust me. I tried pushin' this one on the guys ordering beer at Melons. They weren't buying.

Re your question. Have you SEEN this Steven Pinker video? (Sorry I don't know how to hyperlink in comments area.) I was just sniffing around for grammar/language stuff and stumbled on this (a history of violence). Definitely gave me a lot to think about.

My own position: I don't know. I lack historical perspective. But here's what I do know. The peace and comfort and ample supply of food most Americans enjoy seems to be quite rare in human history. I'm not banking on it being anything more than a fluke. Seems it's very delicate and very fragile and it would be very easy for us to let it slip away through any of a hundred different shortsighted moves.

Re your recommendation that I don't throw out the baby with the bathwater, thanks for that, too. That'll definitely bolster the effort, if only just a little.

Joel said...

Thanks for putting up with my rants. I promise to settle down for a bit. :-)

TED is amazing, huh? Some of my younger friends introduced me to it and almost every TED video I've seen has been thought-provoking and amazing. And some truly life-changing. Of course, what I've seen has been filtered by folks I respect, but still, it's encouraging that such thought and sharing occur.

Indeed, in lieu of another rant, here's one of my favorite TEDTalks about education. If nothing else it's quite witty. I disagree with the one bit about this somehow being a modern problem, but on the whole, this is one of the best things I've heard in a long time: Ken Robinson on Education.

Oh, why not, here are a couple of other good ones:
Carl Honore: Slowness
Benjamin Zander: Classical Music

Also, I don't know if this will make any sense, but here is the html for a link (not that having to copy and paste is a huge bother, but fyi). Note that "[open angle]" is the open angle bracket or less than sign and "[close angle]" is the corresponding bracket or greater than sign. Otherwise, the text should be repeated exactly as shown, including the quotation marks. url and label, of course, are your web address and what you want it to show as.

[open angle]a href="url"[close angle]label[open angle]/a[close angle]

June Casagrande said...

Don't settle down on the "rants"! Please! I'm lucky to get your very thought-provoking comments -- not to mention your support -- and I know it!

That was my first experience with that TED lecture series. But I'm definitely going to check out more, as well as the links you gave ... just as soon as I get this big pile o' copy editing off my desk.

Looking forward to many more "rants" ...


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