A Google search for “tip of the day” reveals daily tips for just about anything you can imagine. There’s a travel tip of the day, style tip of the day, even a Failure of the Day. In her new book “The Grammar Devotional: Daily Tips for Successful Writing from Grammar Girl” (Holt Paperbacks), Mignon Fogarty—author of “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing”—again addresses the needs of writers, providing this underserved group with grammar and punctuation lessons, word scrambles, and profiles of “rock star” grammarians who have helped English evolve to what it is today.
In the interest of good grammar, Failure magazine reached out to Fogarty to inquire about her new book, and to find out how her audience of grammar enthusiasts responds when she makes a mistake.
Good writing seems to be falling by the wayside. Why is this the right time for “The Grammar Devotional”?
Even though it may seem as if good writing is falling by the wayside, people are writing much more than they used to. Individuals who used to pick up the phone now send an e-mail instead. Often we’re “meeting” in writing these days, and others will judge you by how you use language. Forget “dress for success,” now it’s “write for success.” I bet many of your readers would be surprised by how many people pay attention to comma usage, subject-verb agreement, and word choices. A great story, message, or work history can easily be overlooked if the reader is distracted by errors.
In your estimation, what is the most common grammatical error?
Many people lose their heads when faced with an apostrophe. The problem is that the apostrophe does two things: indicates a contraction and makes nouns possessive. To make things more complicated, although you make nouns possessive with apostrophes, you don’t make pronouns possessive with apostrophes. That is why so many people confuse “who’s” and “whose.”
But a lot of things people think are rules actually aren’t. For example, it’s often wrong to end a sentence with a preposition, but it’s not always wrong. It’s wrong to ask, “Where is she at?” because you can leave off the “at” and the sentence means the same thing. But nobody expects people to ask “From where are you?” instead of “Where are you from?” There are a lot of misconceptions about rules like that.
Does bad grammar drive you crazy? Or do you take it in stride?
The more I learn about English, the more I take things in stride. There have been huge changes over the years, and we accept things today that outraged people 200 years ago. Did you know that at one time “lengthy” was railed against with the same venom as “irregardless” is today?
I have my opinions about which current rules are silly, but I mostly keep them to myself. Given my role as a guide, I shouldn’t be on the leading edge of change.
Your book is filled with “language rock stars.” Is there anyone in particular you look up to?
I look up to Bryan Garner. If I had to choose one style guide I couldn’t live without, it would be “Garner’s Modern American Usage.” I find it to be the most comprehensive and evenhanded usage guide on the English language. He just released a new edition, and I was shocked to get an e-mail he sent out asking people to help market it online because bookstores were reluctant to carry it. That’s incomprehensible to me; it’s an amazing book.
It must be stressful to perform for an audience of grammar enthusiasts. Do you find readers/listeners looking to catch you in a mistake?
I’m not perfect and everybody thinks it’s fun to catch Grammar Girl in an error, so I get regular criticism—some of which is delivered with a sense of humor and some of which isn’t. If there’s a typo on my Facebook page, for example, I hear about it immediately. Also, I sometimes pronounce things incorrectly in my podcast and people let me know. For instance, I used to pronounce the “t” in “often,” but that’s actually not the correct way to pronounce it in America.
While I was writing “The Grammar Devotional” I relied heavily on guest writers for the podcast and they seemed to enjoy using foreign words that I couldn’t pronounce; sometimes I felt as if they were trying to punish me.
Last but not least, can you explain Hartman’s Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation?
A technical writer named Jed Hartman came up with a “law” stating that “any article or statement about correct grammar, punctuation, or spelling is bound to contain at least one error.” We’ve all been there. The first printing of my first book had an error on the back cover.