Grammar Girl

Grammar GirlLast night I met up with Megan to see Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, at the Decatur Library in an event sponsored by the Georgia Center for the Book.  Unfortunately, by the time I arrived, there were no more books left, so I was unable to get a signed copy of her new book, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.  The auditorium was packed, which prompted the question (several times) “Who knew grammar was so popular?”

If you are an English teacher and haven’t discovered Grammar Girl, you need to go check out her site and listen to some of her podcasts.  She responds to questions submitted by her listeners, and she discusses one grammatical issue per episode.  You can easily incorporate the podcast into your class — it’s usually only about five minutes long.  Fogarty announced that she will now be doing the podcast twice a week rather than once, so you can even make it a part of your class as an opening activity for two days a week.

One thing I thought was interesting was that during the Q&A, a language arts teacher started to ask a question, but someone behind her in the audience exclaimed when she made a grammatical error in her speech — using a reflexive pronoun in the subjective case.  She didn’t realize her error at first, and when she did, she was noticeably embarrassed and, I think, justifiably angry.  We all make grammatical errors when we speak.  If we had to stop and think as hard about correctness when we speak as much as we do when we write, we would never talk.  I think pointing out people’s grammar errors when they speak is just plain rude.  The woman didn’t ask her question, and there was this wave of discomfort that passed through the room.  That kind of thing is why people don’t like English teachers, for I can almost guarantee it was an English teacher who did it.  I am not saying we shouldn’t teach students to write using correct grammar, but if we make them feel scared to even open their mouths in our classrooms, how much are they going to learn from us?

Anyway, I really enjoyed Grammar Girl’s talk, but I really wish the Georgia Center for the Book had anticipated the crowd.  It really stank that they ran out of books.  For the curious — Megan let me thumb through her book, and it is basically transcripts of her podcasts.  By the way, I disagree with Grammar Girl regarding the possessive of a singular noun ending in s.  Grammar Girl likes the AP Style Guide’s recommendation that singular nouns ending s simply have an apostrophe: Kansas’ statute.  I don’t understand why the s changes the rule, and I agree with Strunk and White that it should be Kansas’s statute.  A fun activity for your students to explore regarding this issue can be found among my unit plans at the UbD Educators wiki: write a letter to Rep. Harrelson of Arkansas, who lobbied to have the official possessive of the state of Arkansas rendered Arkansas’s and tell him whether or not you think he was correct (giving him evidence based on consulting several grammar texts).

11 thoughts on “Grammar Girl”

  1. As an English teacher, I can't help but notice others' grammar errors. I just judge them silently, inside my head. 🙂

    On the flip side, I hate it when I first meet someone (an adult) and s/he says, "Oh, I guess I'll have to watch my grammar around you," as though I'm handing out report cards in my personal life!

  2. Sorry you didn't get the book. And, if you're in a more descriptivist frame of mind, you can use Google to search for which form is more common ("If I were you" gets 6.1 mil and "If I was you" gets 1.9 mil). Un-fortunately, I can't figure out how to get Google to recognize the apostrophe and compare the two forms of the possessive.

    Plus, I completely agree about the rudeness of correcting grammar in public. That's supposed to stay in your head.

  3. April, I get the same thing. That and grammar questions. When folks find out I teach English, they invariably ask a question about grammar. My doctor once asked me to give an example of a dangling participle on the spot. I can't help but notice errors, either, especially in print, but like you, I keep it to myself so I don't look like a jerk! Like Nate says, it needs to stay in your head.

    Nate, if memory serves, "if I were you" is considered correct because it is the subjunctive tense, which expresses something that might happen but isn't certain to happen. I guess the thinking is that using "was" could cause confusion about when or whether something happened, but in actual usage, I don't think that is the case.

  4. I'm with you on the possessives. And I get so tired of noticing spelling and grammar errors for my job–I've gotten pretty good at turning the editor-antennae off when I'm not at work.

  5. Dana,

    Of course, you're right about the subjunctive thing–although it's one of the few places where we use it. I have a bit of a different attack on grammar; I try to teach kids that the way groups actually use the language is the best measure of its correctness rather than what a grammar book might say. You can see that in your example where different books disagree. That's why I wanted to see which form of the possessive was more common on the Internet

  6. Thanks for the book/author intro…going to purchase it!

    I am from Arkansas…will drop Rep. Harrelson a letter. Might even make that a class project when we return to school.


  7. A few notes:

    1. The subjunctive is a mood, not a tense, and it is moribund in English, which is why many people no longer say "if I were…". Since the "If" already indicates non-reality, I don't think there's any cases where "If I was" could be confusing, and I can't think of any contrastive pairs where "If I were" and "If I was" could mean different things.

    In languages with a vibrant, living subjunctive, like Spanish, there's nothing to be taught (to native-speakers anyway). In Standard English, the subjunctive lives on in a few places ("It is imperative that he arrive on time", "*Be* that as it may", "God *shed* his light" "If I *were* you").

    If you're looking for some good commentary on grammar from a linguistic perspective, I can't recomment Language Log highly enough (I think perhaps it should be required reading for English teachers). Here are a few posts relevant to this post/thread:

    On the subjunctive:

    On dangling modifiers (brought up in comments earlier)

  8. What I like best about Grammar Girl is that she mixes the jargon with suggestions for the real world. Which is probably why I liked Nate's suggestion about taking into account prevailing use.

    Of course, I'm just a math teacher who finds the grocer's apostrophe appalling. What do I know about grammar? *smile*

    Oh, and speaking of apostrophes, in _Eats, Shoots, and Leaves_, Lynne Truss tells several nice stories about the history — and evolution — of this problematic punctuation mark. I think it's a nice complement to Grammar Girl's work.

  9. Well, I didn't exactly get to meet Grammar Girl, although if I had stayed for the signing I could have. However, with nothing for her to sign, I decided to just skip it.

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