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Back To Literature, Past
A Literary & Poetry Column
By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Why We Needn’t Get In a Snit Over Grammar

Now 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

So 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 an error.

Maybe 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.

You also know she didn’t tell you that you could use fragments. You can. We usually use them for emphasis. Like this one:

MyShelf’s Back to Literature column to the rescue.

Writers 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!

So, 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.

If 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.

I 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.

Web 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.

Remember 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.

For 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.

It 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.

So 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, too.

And here are a bunch more of my recommendations:

  1. AP Stylebook, by Associated Press. Especially good for those who write for newspapers, some magazines, and those who blog.
  2. Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer’s Guide to Getting It Right, by Bill Bryson.
  3. Chicago Manual of Style, by the University of Chicago Press Staff. Excellent for those writing books.
  4. Eats, 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.
  5. Far From the Madding Gerund, by Geoffrey K. Pullum et al.
  6. Garner’s 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 sentence.
  7. Grammar 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 and Burchfield).
  8. Mortal 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.
  9. It 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 project.
  10. StyleEase for Chicago Manual of Style, by Kate Turabian.
  11. A 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.
  12. Perrin 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.
  13. The 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.
  14. The Describer’s Dictionary: A Treasury of Terms & Literary Quotations, by David Grambs. One of my favorite references for creative writing.
  15. 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.)

A Tip for Writers:


My 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.

A 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 Printing

2011 Noble list Please 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


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