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(Still) Groping for Words: Usage and Slang Guides, Revisited: Grammar with a Twist

by Edwin L. Battistella

Grammar with a Twist

Though grammar is not usually considered a topic for popular reading, over the years grammarians have written books directed at the general reading public. Such writers may see themselves as readable heirs to Fowler or as enlivening Strunk and White. As a group these writers are sometimes referred to as “language mavens,” and the best-known maven of all was New York Times columnist William Safire, who began his career as a language commentator by writing a political dictionary. Safire published several collections of his columns, and in these he comes across as a word-loving uncle, equally likely to refer to Partridge or Mencken as to cite Fowler or Follett. He understood the limits of prescription, and his How Not to Write: The Essential Misrules of Grammar (originally published as Fumblerules: A Lighthearted Guide to Grammar and Good Usage) pokes fun at fifty traditional rules and superstitions and advises, for example, “Don’t use no double negatives.”

Some popular books serve up grammatical fare with sugar and/or spice. In The Elephants of Style: A Trunkload of Tips on the Big Issues and Gray Areas of Contemporary American English, Washington Post copy chief Bill Walsh puns his way through grammar issues. And one cannot resist smiling at Patricia O’Conner’s Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, with its chapters titled “Plurals before Swine,” “Comma Sutra,” and “The Living Dead: Let Bygone Rules Be Gone.” Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing also starts from the premise that grammar should be fun, and Fogarty brings the same engaging personality to her guide as one finds in her long-running podcast Grammar Girl. Illustrated with cartoon aardvarks and snails, the book introduces usage issues from an to you’re, with some good advice about internet writing at the end. 

Copyeditor June Casagrande’s latest book (she has previously written on sentence craft, punctuation, and surviving grammar snobs) is The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know. She begins with a chapter titled “So Who’s in Charge Here?”—reminding readers that they are in charge—and then serves up twenty-eight chapters on usage and parts of speech. Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose by Constance Hale revels in the tension between the title words: the traditions and rules of language versus a writer’s license to depart from them; the book’s three main parts cover words and sentences but also the music of language: melody, rhythm, lyricism, and voice. Walsh, O’Connor, Fogarty, Casagrande, and Hale love the quirks of grammar and convey their ardor to readers.

Punctuation lends itself to brief, popular treatments. Karen Elizabeth Gordon brings the comma, hyphen, dash, slash, parenthesis, and other punctuation to life in The New Well-Tempered Sentence with wonderful, purplish definitions (“A comma is a delicate kink in time”) and humorous examples of, for example, nonessential information (“Those spurs, I must say, are a provocative addition to your wardrobe”). In A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation, literary agent Noah Lukeman treats punctuation as verbal art rather than grammar, and he illustrates with examples from Edgar Allan Poe, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and others. Those who want a businesslike yet still lighthearted approach to punctuation can turn to Eric Partridge’s You Have a Point There: A Guide to Punctuation and Its Allies, Harry Shaw’s brief but comprehensive Punctuate It Right! (with its excellent glossary), or Garner’s Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation, mentioned above.

Several copy editors have written books with practical insider advice. Mary Norris’s Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen offers the witty perspective of a veteran copy editor at The New Yorker, covering not just commas but also diction, dashes, danglers, diareses, and hyphens. In Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, Benjamin Dreyer, the copy chief of Random House, gives a short course in copyediting. He is up front about his peeves, gives readers a guide to punctuation, covers frequently confused or misspelled words, and throws in material on proper nouns, dialogue tags, and more.

Do I Make Myself Clear? by Harold Evans (a former editor of The Times and The Sunday Times) serves some of the same functions as Dreyer’s, with a number of useful before-and-after rewrites sprinkled throughout. Among other things, the reader is reminded of the distinctions between flotsam and jetsam, and among gaff, guff, gaffe, and gaffer, and is treated to a host of New Yorker cartoons. Pamela Haag’s Revise: The Scholar-Writer’s Essential Guide to Tweaking, Editing, and Perfecting Your Manuscript is a breezy style guide for academics with the aim of turning scholarly writing into something readable; she covers jargon and theory, length and structure, tour-guiding, and stage setting, and offers tips on the editorial process.