OK. I admit it – I’m a bit of a grammar snob. I know I’m opening myself up to criticism if I were to make a mistake. [Notice how I used the subjunctive – “were” not “was,” just now.] I ask for your sympathy. I attended a high school in eastern Pennsylvania that, in English classes from grades 9 through 12, we learned grammar, spelling, diagramming sentences, and vocabulary every year. The point I’m making here is, we had all this drummed into our wee heads, so we could not help but become somewhat obsessive about it. However, when I taught ninth-grade English in a high school in western Pennsylvania just four years later, there was no place in the curriculum for grammar – that’s how quickly matters had changed. (I taught some grammar anyway.)
If you are interested in learning more about English grammar, spelling, vocabulary, and usage – and learning about these in a way that is perhaps more fun than the methods my classmates and I were exposed to – you couldn’t do much better than acquiring a copy of The Grammar Lady: How to Mind Your Grammar in Print and in Person, by Mary Newton Bruder. Starting a Web site in Pittsburgh entitled, “The Grammar Lady,” the author set herself up to answer any question that might be thrown at her related to grammar, whether directly or tangentially. I think she realizes that she is a bit of a grammar snob too, but she delivers her message in amusing ways with laugh-out-loud examples of how grammatical, spelling, vocabulary, and language usage mistakes can get in the way of communicating what one really wants to get across.
Bruder begins the book by laying out why grammar is important. Some of the major reasons:
- It can save time by keeping us out of situations (through misunderstanding or offense) that we later have to apologize for. [Yes, I know I ended that sentence with a preposition – excuse me!]
- It enhances communication.
- People are judged on the basis of their grammar (especially important during job interviews).
The author makes the point that students should be taught the basics of grammar by the third grade, and after that spend time refining that knowledge and learning vocabulary and more complex sentence structure. She also says it’s a waste [not “waist’] of time diagramming sentences. I disagree with that. [I really enjoyed learning to diagram sentences. I learned parts of speech by that method which, I think, helped with foreign languages too.]
One of my favorite aspects of this book is the amusing examples she offers of unintentional mistakes she sees in advertisements, company memos, school assignments, with many of these sent to her Web site. Here are a few:
- From a government-contract proposal: “We have ascertained that the project will require 66 man-moths of experience.”
- “The guest book is in charge of Mary Jane,” rather than as it should be, the other way around.
- “They referred a woman with a broken exhaust pipe and three flat tires.”
- “Hopefully it won’t rain tomorrow,” rather than “I hope it won’t rain tomorrow.” [Later in the book she describes this development as a battle that may already be lost.]
- The bugaboo of the parts of speech related to the verbs “lie” (meaning to recline), and “lay” (meaning to place something on a table, for example).
- A sportscaster and weatherman on a local television station described what they called a “heart-rendering” story.
In one sense I do the author a disservice. She may be a bit of an elitist, but she does allow for the fact that the English language does change, and that there is a difference between the written and the spoken language. However, there are some things she cannot abide, one of them being overuse of the word “like,” in a sentence such as, “It was . . . like . . . cold.” She refers to this as, an “inarticulate stutter,” all the while admitting that she has never seen it in print since it is mostly a bothersome habit of some speakers.
I recommend that you pick up this book – if you want to learn about grammar, spelling, vocabulary, language usage, and so forth, or if you just want to be amused at the many ways that we can mess up what it is we are trying to say to each other. For those who are interested, you may also want to look up another related book – Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss.