Book review: Grammar for Grown-ups

If you’ve picked up one or two clients from across the pond, you might be looking to brush up on your UK English. Katherine Fry and Rowena Kirton’s Grammar for Grown-ups: A Straightforward Guide to Good English (published by Square Peg) is a good place to start.

Fry, a freelance editor, and Kirton, the managing editorial director at Random House, have written a light-hearted guide to English grammar, covering everything from the parts of speech and punctuation to commonly misspelled words and trickier issues, including usage and the subjunctive mood. Helpfully, the book also includes a chapter that compares UK English with English in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. I found this chapter the most interesting, as it offers a glimpse into how the UK views other parts of the English-speaking world. Fry and Kirton not only give a detailed explanation of differences in punctuation (e.g., single quotes in the UK versus double in the U.S.) but also list regional terms and their UK equivalents—all with a healthy dose of humour:

[South African term / UK term]
voetsek (pronounced ‘foot sack’) / bugger off
vrying (pronounced ‘fraying’) / snogging
vuvuzela / very annoying blowy thing

(I found disconcerting the section on Canadianisms, in which the authors define “beaver tail” and “double-double”—are those really our chief lexical exports?)

Grammar for Grown-ups closes with a chapter defining literary terms and devices (through which I learned about antonomasia, encomium, and synecdoche)—not grammar per se but probably useful to know nonetheless.

The book is a quick read, and the tone is authoritative but neither condescending nor overly prescriptive. In fact, what I most appreciate is that they acknowledge that “Language is constantly developing, and while some rules should remain hard and fast, some may be bent and once in a while even broken – when you know what you’re doing…” (p. x) Throughout the book are exercises—many of them taken from classic works of literature—that reinforce what the authors have just taught, and the answers to those are at the back of the book. Most editors will find Grammar for Grown-ups an entertaining refresher, and even seasoned veterans will probably learn a thing or two.

That said, the book isn’t a style guide. Meant as a primer for a general audience, Grammar for Grown-ups is unlikely to find a permanent place on the professional editor’s reference shelf. (For one thing, it lacks an index.) Consider it bubble gum: fun but nonessential. And as with any grammar guide that claims to be “the only book you need,” it has its share of problems. For instance:

Most general descriptive adjectives can come both before and after the noun – ‘the long book’, ‘the bad idea’, OR ‘the book is long’, ‘the idea is bad’. In the former examples, before the noun and with no linking verb, the adjective is called attributive. In the latter, after the noun and verb, the adjective is called predicative. The first modifies the noun; the second completes the meaning of the sentence.” (p. 19)

That’s all fine and good, but nowhere do the authors define “linking verb.” Later on, as they explain adverbs, they write:

And to confuse things even more: ‘I feel badly‘ and ‘I feel bad‘ are both adverbs, but the sense is rather different. In the first, I am feeling ill, or my sense of touch has gone up the spout; in the latter, I am feeling bad about something, such as dumping my boyfriend just after he lost his job. (p. 23)

Had they taken the opportunity earlier to define “linking verb,” the distinction between “I feel badly” and “I feel bad” would have been easier to explain. (And no, “bad” isn’t an adverb here—it’s an adjective, precisely because “feel” is a linking verb.)

In other places, the book is downright wrong. Some examples:

In the section “Singular and Plural”

Making things even more irregular are those which are the same in both singular and plural – like ‘food’, ‘sheep’, ‘money’, ‘series’, ‘deer’, ‘offspring’. (p. 4)

So “Cabbage, seaweed, and mushrooms are three food that fight cancer”?

In the section about adverbs

Some adjectives end in “ly’ anyway – ‘friendly’, ‘lonely’, ‘lovely’ – so when they are used as adverbs, they don’t need another ‘ly’ added (‘friendlyly’? no thanks). (p. 23)

So “She smiled friendly”? I don’t think so. And even the Oxford English Dictionary confirms that it’s friendlily, lonelily, lovelily. Mouthfuls, yes—but not wrong.

In the section “‘a’ or ‘an’?”

On the whole, ‘an’ goes with any noun starting with a vowel – ‘an apple’, ‘an egg’, ‘an ice cream’, ‘an olive’ – though not always with ‘u’ nouns (it depends on how the ‘u’ is pronounced – it’s not ‘an unicorn’ but it is ‘an umbrella’). (p. 28)

Nope. It’s the sound immediately following the article that dictates which of “a” or “an” you use; the noun has nothing to do with it. “An overbearing mother-in-law” takes “an” because the sound that follows is a vowel, even though “mother-in-law” is the noun. And “an MP3 player” takes “an” because you say “em”—even though “MP3” technically starts with a consonant.

Despite these problems, Fry and Kirton get a lot right, particularly in their motivation for producing such a book in the first place. Even with the prevalence of textspeak, good grammar and punctuation are still important: “In a fast-paced world, when communications jostle for attention, if your letter, email or website page is full of errors, a reader won’t waste his or her time trying to work out what you’re trying to say.” (p. ix) If you’re looking for a rigorous reference on English grammar and usage, you might want to look elsewhere. But take Grammar for Grown-ups for what it is—a tour-bus loop through UK English—and you won’t be disappointed.

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