Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Need a last-minute holiday gift for a grammarian?

OK, last-minute holiday shoppers, if you're unsure about what to get your favorite grammarian* this year, here's an idea for you. Mark Garvey's Stylized is an excellent gift for language lovers and writers alike. It's a well-written (but of course!), witty history of and commentary on the beloved The Elements of Style, which, as many of you know, is an extremely helpful guide to good writing and good grammar.

Fellow grammarphile Garvey was kind enough to do a brief Q&A just for you, my lovely Red Pen, Inc. readers, so read on!

Q: Sometimes rules are made to be broken. Which rule in The Elements of Style are you most tempted to break sometimes, and why?

A: I have kind of a different take on the “rules” of writing. I share E. B. White’s attitude, which is that the guidelines expressed in The Elements of Style, while extremely helpful in hundreds of ways, should never keep a writer from trying whatever he feels like trying. Once you know how good writing works, you should feel free to experiment. White once wrote to a reader:

“Writing is saying what you feel like saying in the way you feel like saying it. There are no rules of writing (who could possibly invent them?) there are only guidelines, and the guidelines can, and should, be chucked out of the window whenever they get in your way or in your hair. I have never paid the slightest attention to ‘The Elements of Style’ when I was busy writing something.”

Q: What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?

A: I’m not a big collector of peeves, but certain habits of usage can sometimes send a fingernail down my inner chalkboard. I dislike, for example, the reflexive pronoun “myself” being used in place of a simple subjective of objective pronoun (“Lemmy and myself went to the gun show”) or the consistent misuse of “begging the question.”

After a long career in editing, I find I’m less annoyed by specific usage peccadilloes than I am by sloppy, imprecise expression—undercooked writing that’s flabby, poorly thought out, badly organized, that obscures rather than clarifies its author’s meaning.

Q: Every grammar geek, word nerd, etc, has a favorite piece of punctuation. What's yours?

A: If we can take “favorite” to mean my most overused mark of punctuation, it would have to be the dash—it’s just so darned handy.

Q: What is the single most important/helpful piece of advice a writer can take away from The Elements of Style?

A: I think it’s the book’s insistence on clarity. All the other virtues preached in Elements—concision, brevity, organization, etc.—are pursued, really, in the interest of getting one’s meaning across clearly. I also value what the book has to say about not straining for style. Clear the flab and deadwood from your prose, write as naturally as you can, and your style will emerge.

Q: If you could take a word that really, really annoys you and omit it from the dictionary, which word would it be, and why?

A: I’m OK with leaving the dictionary alone; it’s just a mirror of usage, after all. I would, however, be in favor of omitting certain words from common use—for instance, the business-speak neologisms that those of us working in corporate America are forced to live with. I’m thinking of words and phrases like “synergize,” “core competency,” “win-win,” and “thinking outside the box.” True, most of that kind of talk eventually gets mocked out of the culture, but in the meantime, those of us who care about language can find it all a bit mind-numbing.

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Stylized is in stores now. Purchase it and find out more information about the book at or by clicking here!

* If I am your favorite grammarian, you do not need to send me a copy of this book, as I already have one. But please do feel free to send me holiday love in the form of booze, shoes, and/or attractive baseball players. I'm not entirely kidding when people ask me what I want for Christmas and I say I want Cole Hamels. ;)

Note: I suppose this qualifies as a semi-sponsored post. I didn't receive any payment to write it, but I was sent a copy of the book to check out. Hopefully this covers my pretty little grammarphile ass when it comes to those crazy new blogger laws!


MarieC said...

Sounds like one I'm gonna have to add to my amazon wish list!

Happy Holidays (I hope Cole Hamels shows up under your tree)!


Happy holidays to you too, Marie! :) Even if I don't get Cole Hamels under my tree, I know there will at least be a Joe Mauer/Twins shirt there because my parents are awesome and got one for me, so that's a pretty good consolation prize, haha!