Adventures in Reading

Revisted Reviews: Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies by June Casagrande and Woe Is I by Patricia T. O’Connor

While reading Grammar Snobs, I kept wondering if it was healthy to be laughing so much at a book on grammar. I read the book in one sitting (excluding a short walk with the dog and a few minutes hiding from a door-to-door salesperson) and it has to be one of the most-user-friendly books I’ve ever encountered when it comes to grammar. In addition, Casagrande may be the first author I’ve encountered who doesn’t immediately disparage modern “netspeak” and attempts at countering racism and sexism in language. A great read for anyone looking to brush up on grammar or to become more familiar with writing.

Woe Is I was suggested to me some years ago by an English literature professor and I’ve only finally gotten around to finishing it. As the title states, it’s a grammar guide written in (mostly) plain English. Woe Is I is a an easy and enjoyable read for anyone wanting to brush up on their grammar, spelling, and punctuation and O’Connor makes use of terrific and creative sentences that make the various rules easier to recall. I certainly had some disagreements with the book (after all, language is living) and the biggest turn off for me was the lack of acknowledging more progressive and modern language.

It’s not really much of a secret: I’m quite the fan of evolving language and progressive usage. This has led to heated arguments with more antiquarian language sticklers, but unless you’re writing for a specific style guide (e.g. for work or an academic paper) most usage rules (and even some grammar) seem pretty damn flexible. (Even dictionaries disagree!) In nearly a year of blogging at Adventures in Reading, I have received a small amount of nit picks from persnickety grammar readers, which I always find curious because my blog of all places is so casual and informal. Regardless of the “snobs” out there, language is fun and entertaining and one of my secret joys is perusing recently published grammar and usage guides.

An Article: A Word, Please

Dictionaries erudite, but not infallible

Webster’s defines “define” as: “to state the meaning or meanings of (as a word).”

That’s right, dictionaries not only define things, they define what it means to define things. Talk about privilege. Actually, that has always been my dream job — the job of writing my own job description. (Trust me when I tell you it would be very short yet still pack in multiple occurrences of the words “beach” and “Brad Pitt.”)

Not only do dictionaries write their own rules, but as they do, the public never questions their authority. Imagine what our country would look like if all power-holders got that kind of free pass. Crawford, Texas, would be the nation’s capital, and brush-clearing would be declared the basic qualification for a Ph.D.

Many people assume that dictionaries’ rulings are absolute, wise and just. Many also seem to think that dictionaries are infallible. I mean, if you look up the word “flatulence” and read that it is “the ability to write legibly with either hand or either foot,” whose wisdom are you going to question first? Yours? Or the guys who know what that little “vt” and backwards e mean? Chances are you’ll just assume you were wrong all along and end up dropping your new vocabulary word at cocktail parties in a vain attempt to brag about your own ambidextrousness.

We accept dictionaries’ word as gospel and never stop to wonder whether they actually deserve this blind faith.

As a citizen of a country that prides itself on publicly depantsing its leaders, I find this downright un-American. So it is with a surge of self-satisfied patriotism that I report to you that dictionaries are quite fallible.

I learned this recently when I checked two different dictionaries to see whether they had yet reached a consensus on whether “underway” is one word or two. No. They have not.

But I noticed something even more interesting. In the sentence, “Preparations were underway,” “Webster’s New World College Dictionary says “underway” is an adjective. Merriam-Webster Online says this function is actually an adverb.

Remember that adverbs aren’t just those -ly words that describe actions. They also answer the questions where? when? and how? So in the sentence, “Finals were yesterday,” the word “yesterday” is an adverb. Compare that to the sentence, “Finals were hard,” in which “hard” is an adjective.

So does “preparations were . . . ” call for an adverb or an adjective?

My first instinct, of course, was to assume I had lost my mind. I was almost too racked with self-doubt to muster up the courage to ask someone. Happily, I got over it.

I wrote to Geoffrey K. Pullum, professor of linguistics at UC Santa Cruz and one of the main guys behind the popular blog. This guy actually co-wrote a grammar book. Not like my books. A good one.

I got straight to the point: “Unless my brain is broken (which is quite possible), ‘Webster’s New World’ and ‘Merriam Webster’ can’t decide whether ‘underway’/‘under way’ can be an adverb. . . . Am I a dink?”

He was gracious enough to reply: “Dictionaries are very bad at diagnosing adjectivehood and adverbhood in general; there are good reasons for being suspicious about whether they have it right. Investigation would be needed to figure out whether people are using ‘underway’ adverbially now.”

“Investigation would be needed.” In other words, the dictionaries don’t know. I hope that this revelation will make at least a tiny dent in our national epidemic of linguistic low self-esteem. I, for one, will keep riding high on Pullum’s most salient comment: “You are not a dink. Whatever that is.”

June Casagrande’s Mortal Syntax

I very much have a love hate relationship when it comes to grammar and the like: I think it’s completely fascinating but in my experience too often people are complete sticks-in-the-mud about it. The first style guide I ever read was Patricia T. O’Conner’s Woe Is I, which was suggested to me by a college professor and it wasn’t too long before I discovered June Casagrande’s Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies. I adored Casagrande’s book and had been excitedly waiting for her sophomore style book: Mortal Syntax.

Mortal Syntax is a list of 101 frequently used and sometimes abused phrases and words. However, unlike most style guides, Casagrande’s objective is not to tell you what to do, but rather she provides practical advice and suggestions based on her readings of dictionaries, style guides, and usage books. Each chapter (mostly quite short) ranges from humorous to hysterical.

And if that wasn’t enough you might actually learn something. I can now hold my head up high and correct my partner the next time he rants how itch is not a verb (even if it’s only to frustrate him). Likewise, I found myself corrected in more than a few chapters (my personal favorite being the usages of gender and sex in chapter 51). Whether you consider yourself a grammar expert or are fortunate enough to string a few paragraphs together, Casagrande’s Mortal Syntax is an engaging look at style that will leave you laughing and help boost your confidence.