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 WorldWideWords.com] 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.