Why We Needn’t
Get In a Snit Over Grammar
you are more than “just” a reader. Now,
you are a writer, too. I mean, everyone is a writer
these days. We blog. We update our status on Facebook.
And what we write is right out there for the whole universe
to see and as nearly as anyone can tell, it never fades
into nothingness. S
you are more grammar aware than ever before. We worry
that our grammar isn’t perfect and we feel more
critical about others’ grammar when we perceive
you have noticed that grammar rules don’t seem
to apply to everyone equally. Maybe you have noticed
that grammar rules seem to shapechange depending on
who you’re talking to. Maybe you’ve noticed
that your fourth grade teacher told you that nouns are
persons, places, and things, but, ooops. Love is a noun
and so is happiness and neither of those words
fits the definition. Your fourth grade teacher got that
wrong—or at least not entirely right. She may
have gotten the rules for to lie and to lay
downright wrong and you’re pretty sure she never
told you that you could skip some serial commas—the
ones that come before the conjunctions.
also know she didn’t tell you that you could use
fragments. You can. We usually use them for emphasis.
Like this one:
Back to Literature column to the rescue.
have something called style choices and they are not
the same as grammar rules. The Elements of Style
may be in your library at home and you may refer to
it on questions of grammar. But it is not a book of
grammar. It’s a stylebook. Which means its “rules”
are not written in stone. No wonder you feel dizzy!
if you weren’t familiar with style guides before,
it’s time to make friends with one. Stylebooks
don’t necessarily agree on every facet grammar
so they won’t and can’t dictate every grammar
issue that comes up. What they can do make you aware
you have choices and help you feel more secure when
you make them.
you’re writing books, give preference to Chicago
Manual of Style. If your write for the US market,
you might also want to compare its suggestions to Garner’s
Modern American Usage. If you write in several
genres or for several different mediums, you will need
two (or more!) different style guides. See the box below
for suggested reading and references.
refer to these books a lot. What I learn sometimes informs
the decisions I make when I’m writing for myself
or writing in new genres. That can be on issues ranging
from spelling to punctuation.
site is an example of a style choice that is yours
alone to make. The Los Angeles Times and hundreds
of publications both online and in print have simplified
the word to website. I think Web site is more accurate
because Web is usually capitalized when it stands alone
and The New York Times, a trusted model in
the US, uses Web site. Still website
or Website are becoming so common that I might
soon change my mind.
the political brouhaha around the word bussing?
Eventually—much to my chagrin—most everyone
agreed on busing (with one s) to mean the practice
of moving schoolchildren from one school district to
another in the interest of diversification. The latter
defies the rules of spelling we all once learned. By
all rules of pronunciation, busing should be
pronounced bewsing, and we don’t need
anything more in our language to confuse the spelling-challenged.
Luckily I don’t think I’ll have to use busing
in very many of my documents.
the new second edition of my Frugal Editor,
I decided to use e-book rather than ebook,
and e-mail rather than email. I figure
that if e stands for electronic then it would
be electronic book or electronic-book,
not electronicbook. That’s my stand.
You might stand on another platform altogether. I do
try to go with the flow when the life of my work may
be at stake and I advise others do, too. But everything
isn’t writ in black and white.
looks as if my position on e-book and e-mail
might be as soundly trounced as the stand I took on
bussing. Dan Poynter decided to forego the
hyphen when he founded his Global Ebook Award. Sometimes
frequency trumps what is rational but not necessarily
what is acceptable by gatekeepers. Choices can be tough.
back to your own style choices. Read, read, read, until
you feel secure about making them. When you do, stick
with your choice throughout any given piece you’re
writing. If it’s a long work, start a personal
style guide to trace the choices you have made for everything
from grammar (do you really want to use commas after
every dependent clause that introduces a sentence?)
to formatting choices. That way your choices will be
consistent and if someone corrects you, it will be easier
to defend your position. Or you may decide to accept
their criticism and change. That’s your choice,
here are a bunch more of my recommendations:
Stylebook, by Associated
Press. Especially good for those who write for newspapers,
some magazines, and those who blog.
Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer’s
Guide to Getting It Right, by Bill Bryson.
Manual of Style, by the University of Chicago
Press Staff. Excellent for those writing books.
Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to
Punctuation, by Lynne Truss. Especially good
(and fun) for those writing for the UK market. And
those who prefer strict rules.
From the Madding Gerund, by Geoffrey K. Pullum
Modern American Usage, by Bryan A. Garner,
is excellent for Americans. Writers who are unsure
of themselves or lack adventure should choose the
more formal of possibilities it offers. If the suggestion
feels stilted, rearrange the construction of your
Snobs Are Big Meanies: Guide to Language for Fun &
Spite, by June Casagrande. Use this book
when you want to be informed and confident enough
to edit and make choices on your own. A more formal
tome that helps with basics but isn’t any fun
is The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (Fowler
Syntax: 101 Language Choices That Will Get You Clobbered
by the Grammar Snobs—Even If You’re Right
by June Casagrande. The more you know about choices,
the better writer you’ll be.
Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences:
A Writer’s Guide to Crafting Killer Sentences,
by June Casagrande. This is the best single book to
review before you begin to edit any major writing
for Chicago Manual of Style, by Kate Turabian.
Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and
Dissertations, Seventh Edition: Chicago Style for
Students and Researchers by Kate L. Turabian
is an excellent resource for academics.
and Smith Handbook of Current English has
been around a long time. When you have read it, you
will know the difference between temerity and timidity—or
at least know to look them up. “Half knowing
a word may be more dangerous than not knowing it at
all” is the kind of truth you will find within
its pages. Trouble is, you may need to search for
it in a bookstore that sells used books or watch for
it at garage sales.
Elements of Style, Fourth Edition, by William Strunk
Jr., E. B. White, Roger Angell. See my cautionary
notes in this column about using Elements as if it
were The Ten Commandments.
Describer’s Dictionary: A Treasury of Terms
& Literary Quotations, by David Grambs.
One of my favorite references for creative writing.
When Words Collide: A Media Writer’s Guide to
Grammar and Style (Wadsworth Series in Mass
Communication and Journalism), by Lauren Kessler and
Duncan McDonald. Perfect for freelance writers, copywriters,
journalists, media writers.
Tips and Tidbits
(Each month in this box,
Carolyn lists a Tidbit that will help authors
write or promote better. She will also include
a Tip to help readers find a treasure among long-neglected
books or a sapphire among the newly-published.)
multi award-winning The
Frugal Editor is now in its second
edition—as an e-book (the print edition
is coming a bit later.) It’s been
reformatted, updated and expanded.
Tip for Readers' Tip:
I mentioned that many readers—you
know, general folk—are writing more
these days. And publishing, too, as part
of their day jobs. Here's a booklet for
those who want to know more about printing
and self-publishing. Titled A Guide
To Book Printing & Self-Publishing,
it is free and frugal and especially good
if you are just beginning to accrue knowledge
about the big, difficult self-publishing
world. It’s from Gorham
nominate a book that fits within the parameters listed
in this year's Noble Back to Literature column. Explain
in 25 word or less why your nomination is a work of
literary merit and sent directly to me.
Nominations must be signed with your real name, e-mail
address and a URL if you have one. Email