Adventures in Reading


Nonfiction: Things That Make Us [sic] by Martha Brockenbrough, 2008

“People who buy grammar books usually don’t need them, except to slam down upon the heads of others…”

After ReadWriteWeb’s article on “Errors By Bloggers Kill Credibility & Traffic, Study Finds,” it was most fortunate for me that I had a copy of Martha Brockenbrough’s Things That Make Us [sic] in my reading stack. Brockenbrough is the founder of The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (SPOGG), which is known for sending out letters to correct everyone from politicians to hockey teams on their grammatical slips.

Embracing pop culture examples, Brockenbrough reviews the traditional language mishaps as well as expanding on some neglected and interesting bits: a list of commonly misspelled words (did you know spelling is linked to genetics?), a section on losing sentence weight like “began/started” and “could/would,” and a nice list of Latin words and usage (including two I regularly mix-up: e.g. and i.e.). Likewise, the book is full of interesting language nuances such as the Chicago Tribune’s attempt at spelling simplification, Jane Austen and JALATIN, and punctuation marks for irony from typographers.

Things That Make Us [sic] is mostly a guide for intermediate language users who already have some grasp on usage. Brockenbrough’s book is a review of grammar and also interspersed with some thoughtful commentary, such as the author’s thoughts on punctuation: “…we first used it to tell people when to breathe as they read out loud, later using it to help silent readers understand syntax. Punctuation isn’t meant to make the author’s state of mind clear. Well-chosen words do that, and the day serious writers turn to punctuation to communicate their ideas be be a :-( day, indeed.”

I confess that Brockenbrough’s book is not the grammar book for me and this has more to do with tone than content. I think language is a many splendored thing, but I believe that few individuals are actually experts and that the vast majority of people live (or struggle) somewhere within the vast spectrum of interlanguage. (Something I’m sure the author would concur with.) Brockenbrough’s tone goes a little too far towards picking on people than sympathizing and being helpful. In her chapter on malapropisms, Brockenbrough says “Mirth does not occur when a grown-up […] reaches into his box of words and pulls out the wrong one,” and though the author does not explicity say she supports this attitude she doesn’t disagree. I think if we embraced our embarassment a little more mirthfully, we might be more open to learning a little bit more.

Conclusion: Tosser.

(Donated to the Writing Center.)



Nonfiction: Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing by Mignon Fogarty

Roughly once a year I try to dip into a grammar, usage or style guide simply to brush up on my own lackluster skills. Additionally, reading a new guide is interesting to see what and how language has evolved since the last book. Though apparently quite the podcast success, I picked up Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing by Mignon Fogarty on impulse.

This user-friendly guide to grammar, punctuation and usage promises the reader to be “right most of the time.” Much of the advice Mignon gives is hokey, but Mignon knows she’s being hokey and that the antics of Aardvark and Squiggly actually will help the reader recall different rules.

With Grammar Girl’s I picked up the difference between pronouncing the prior to a vowel sound versus a consonant sound or using by or on accident. But it’s the final chapters of Grammar Girl’s that really makes it stand out from the rest of the usage crowd: chapters on Internet use as well as brainstorming tips for creative and nonfiction writing. Both of these are areas mostly neglected in other guides.

Though not nearly as funny as June Casagrande’s grammar books, Fogarty’s book is a terrific guide superbly suited for high school students and undergraduates. Fogarty comes out as a more progressive usage user, which certainly makes me quite partial to her book and prods me to look into her podcast.

Q&A from Conjugate Visits.