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
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, too.
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 sentence.
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).
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 project.
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
Winners feel free to capture a
banner for your website!
Howard-Johnson is a multi award-winning novelist, poet
and author of the HowToDoItFrugally series of
how-to books. She occasionally teaches classes for the
renowned UCLA Extension Writers' Program.
Website - My
Review Blog - Email