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.

Book review: The Only Grammar and Style Workbook You’ll Ever Need

Good editors have an intuitive sense about language, and I know many editors who’ve never had any formal grammar training. Is knowing what “sounds right” enough?

It may be, but understanding grammatical rules can be enormously empowering to an editor. Knowing the parts of speech, the difference between clauses and phrases, the distinction between independent and dependent clauses, and so on helps an editor understand why something looks or sounds right or wrong. More important, it gives the editor tools with which to communicate knowledgeably and authoritatively with colleagues and authors.

So it was with interest that I read through Susan Thurman’s The Only Grammar and Style Workbook You’ll Ever Need (F+W Media, July 2012), a new companion exercise book to Thurman’s 2003 title, The Only Grammar Book You’ll Ever Need. Each page in the workbook is devoted to a particular grammatical issue—dangling modifiers, say—and it asks the reader either to identify a grammatical construct or to solve a problem in each of ten sentences. Answers to the problems are listed at the bottom of the page. The book covers spelling, parts of speech, sentence structure, punctuation, and some stylistic matters such as eliminating wordy phrases and identifying redundancies.

Thurman’s workbook is just that—it contains exercises only. It assumes that you either have a grammar reference (preferably hers, of course) or that you already know your stuff, and it doesn’t define, for example, what a restrictive clause is. That said, if you don’t already know the terminology, much of it is easy enough to infer by referring to the answer key, so in general the workbook can function as a standalone tool. However, using the workbook on its own may leave you with a skewed impression of what Thurman is trying to convey. Because it uses a bare-bones format to cover basic grammar, it comes off as more simplistic and prescriptivist than I think it intends. For example, its page of exercises on hyphens makes no distinction between hyphens and en dashes; only if you look in The Only Grammar Book You’ll Ever Need do you realize that Thurman does address the difference, noting that some word processing programs will automatically change hyphens to en dashes when they are used in number ranges. Further, although a few of the style exercises are prefaced “Answers may vary,” having a simple right-or-wrong answer key for most of the exercises means that readers aren’t given a chance to consider that language evolves and that register can dictate whether a certain usage is acceptable. For these reasons, I found it handy to have Thurman’s grammar book as a reference and for context as I worked through the exercise book.

I did find myself looking at The Only Grammar Book You’ll Ever Need to understand the motivation behind certain exercise problems. For example, page 14 of the workbook includes the following sentences:

3. Clara will (a) annoy (b) aggravate Clarence if she spends too much money.

4. Clarence will (a) annoy (b) aggravate the situation if he insists on watching every penny Clara spends.

The grammar book says, “If you mean pester or irritate, you want annoy. Aggravate means exaggerate or make worse.” (p. 7)

Although I agree with Thurman that annoy is probably the better choice in sentence 3, Webster’s does list as a definition of aggravate “to rouse to displeasure or anger by usually persistent and often petty goading,” and as an editor I wouldn’t necessarily have marked aggravate as incorrect.

To be fair, editors aren’t really the workbook’s target audience. Nor are professional writers, I’d go as far as to say. The grammar book and workbook would probably be most useful to students and those Robin Kilroy called “functional writers”—people who have to write for work, for example, but who aren’t writers by trade or title. However, the workbook does offer editors a quick refresher on topics like coordinating and subordinating conjunctions, gerunds, and linking verbs. If at one point you’d learned these concepts and just want to briefly pull them out of your memory bank and dust them off, this workbook will certainly do the trick. By contrast, if you’re starting from scratch, finding a solid grammar reference would be a more logical first step.

In addition to the grammar exercises, the pages on style—identifying misplaced modifiers, eliminating wordiness, and the like—are a very helpful reminder to editors about the kinds of problems they may encounter when working with an author’s text.

Much less useful are the sixty-eight pages Thurman devotes to commonly misspelled words. For example on page 66, the first sentence reads:

1. Recently, (a) guerilla (b) gerilla warfare has intensified in the dense jungle area.

Not only do I doubt that the misspelling “gerilla” is an actual problem (certainly it would be picked up by any spell checker), but the sentence also misses the obvious opportunity to teach readers about the difference between “guerilla” and “gorilla”—which is a frequently confused pair of words.

The sentences in the “Common Misspelled Words” chapter are also problematic in that some of them contain what I would mark up as grammatical or usage errors. Some examples include the following:

10. To avoid confusion, place angle (a) brackits (b) brackets around Internet addresses. (p. 40)

I would change avoid to prevent here; to avoid means to sidestep something, whereas to prevent means to stop something or make it impossible.

1. The marathon runner collapsed due to (a) exhaustion (b) exaustion. (p. 61)

“Due to” should be used only with the verb “to be” or to join two nouns (e.g., “smoke due to fire”) and not as a substitute for “because of” or “owing to.” Although this usage rule appears very much to be changing, sticking to it does prevent ambiguity in some cases.

6. While experiencing food poisoning, Joe’s face turned an (a) unatural (b) unnatural color. (p. 92)

Although Joe’s face was probably also experiencing food poisoning, I think most of us would agree that the intended subject of “experiencing” was Joe.

I have another—admittedly petty—issue with the book: its little bit of false advertising. The cover copy reads, “Never again end a sentence with a preposition” (a rule many grammarians would claim is a myth), yet there are no exercises in the book that directly address that rule.

For the book’s intended audience, the workbook may be perfectly adequate, although to those readers I would definitely recommend also having on hand a grammar reference that defines the terminology and explains the rules. For most editors, however, Thurman’s book will not be the only grammar and style workbook you’ll ever need. Certainly, editors preparing for certification will want more practice editing in context, which a book of single sentences simply won’t provide. That said, certified editors (who take this book’s prescriptivist bent with a grain of salt) may find it an easy way to earn credential maintenance points and restock their grammatical toolkit.