Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Archive for the tag “grammar”

Another Review Round Up

Yes, I do read grammar books for fun. You mean you don’t?

This lovely practically jumped into my basket as I was checking out of the library. I will search out the prequel at some point. Grammar is beneficial for many reasons. Beyond getting better marks on English assignments, it helps save lives without having to recert for CPR. Then again, CPR wouldn’t help Grandma as much as a well-placed comma.

There is also learning insignificantly important stuff that helps one sound more edumacated. Once you do check out the book, because you are so very enticed after this review, turn to the following highlights:

p. 29: good and well hint–good describes a noun or pronoun, while well is an adverb describing a verb and tells how. Verbs of senses use good, as in “that dairy farm smells good”. Use good and bad with feelings: “I felt bad that I disagree with you about that farm smell statement.”

p.32: apostrophes–don’t get me started. Making possessives out of plurals and vice versa is becoming an epidemic amongst businesses. “Find the best deals on cow’s in town.”

For fun (cheers, V!).
p.43: Briticisms:
apartment=flat, cookie=biscuit, elevator=lift, sweater=jumper

Every grammarian’s joke is found on p.65 concerning dangling participial phrases.

p. 91: hopefully is an adverb, not a filler. “Hopefully the cows know their way home”should be:”It is hoped the cows know their way home.” This is because they can’t drive, due not being able to steer.

Of whiches and whoms is on p.154: relative pronouns that or which (essential vs nonessential) who or whom (subject vs object:”Who will milk the cows?” “The farmer hired whom as the cow whisperer?”

p. 185: real words–all right not alright; regardless not irregardless; anyway not anyways

Plus, the red “More” in the title moves. At least it did one night. Dancing up and down and around on the cover like a first grader let out for recess. Tonight it didn’t. One shot grammarized? The hubs is my witness. My observations were not a result of over strenuous grammar absorption.

There are also scads of brilliant grammar-themed cartoons planted nicely throughout the book. I wonder if I could convince the admin of this being a textbook adoption?

Dash It All

I have come upon the realization I lean towards dashes instead of semi-colons–really, I do. My students upon the first introduction to Emily Dickinson notice her use of those extra big hyphens. Hey–if it’s good enough for Em–dash it all, it can’t be all wrong.

On reflection, perhaps I overindulge in my penchant for dashes–or maybe not? In my desire to correctly use them, I turned to the Internet and found my favorite grammar guru–Ben Yagoda. A writer for The New York Times, professor, teacher, and I would say humorist, he provided everything I needed to know about the dash–and then some. Check out his fabulous writing guide How Not to Write Bad (really–that’s the title).

cartoon by Peter Arkle

An excerpt from his column points out how effective the dash can be:

To get a sense of some of the things a dash can do, take a look at these pairs of quotes.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”:

Thirty: the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm, thinning hair.

Thirty—the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm, thinning hair.

Henry James, referring to Henry David Thoreau:

He was worse than a provincial, he was parochial.

He was worse than a provincial—he was parochial.

Mark Twain in “Autobiography”:

…life does not consist mainly (or even largely) of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever blowing through one’s head.

…life does not consist mainly—or even largely—of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever blowing through one’s head.

Twain’s “Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar”:

Each person is born to one possession which outvalues all his others: his last breath.

Each person is born to one possession which outvalues all his others—his last breath.

In all cases, both versions make sense and are grammatically correct. But the ones with the dash (the ones the authors actually wrote) seem to live and breathe, while the others just lie there on the page. Like hitting the right combination of buttons in a computer game, typing two hyphens on the keyboard — and thereby making a dash — can give your prose a burst of energy, as if by magic. 

Emily, Twain, F. Scott, and Henry J.–I’m in good company.

Understanding and Using English

One of those Tome Treasures I own is an old grammar handbook: Understanding and Using English. It’s publish date is 1949 and it is by the Birks, Newman B and Genevieve B, respectively. I am always curious and interested in browsing old grammar books because grammar used to have more active precedence in prior years, especially in English courses.  Now, it’s more about writing, but how can one write well without knowing how to put words together?  It’s like requiring a person to cook without showing them where the spices are in the rack.

Usually old grammar books are a snore and a half.  I was proved wrong. The first chapter “Language and Meaning” introduction floored me with its eloquence:

Modern man lives in a world of words, and the kind of world he lives in depends to a surprisingly large extent on the words that he uses and hears. Words can make or prevent wars, solemnize marriages or invalidate them, form constitutions or destroy them, sell shoddy or superior products or ideas, justify man’s worst actions or express his highest ideals. Because of the immense power of language, or even a few words, advertisers pay large sums for the best phrase or slogan or jingle, and no responsible statesman feels free to depart from the letter of his carefully prepared speech. Lawyers may spend hours in court trying to fix the meaning of a single word, and one of the chief functions of our Supreme Court is interpreting the words of the law of the land.

I am considering opening my initial grammar session with this.  Words and their meaning are so important.  How they are portrayed is essential, and so it is essential we know the rules of the road. More good stuff:

Since language is so important, it is strange that in our society more people have a reasonably accurate idea of how an automobile works and how to handle it than of how their native language works and how to handle it.  Even poor drivers know what the accelerator and the steering wheel and even the brake are for, and have some knowledge of the relationship between the cylinders and the gasoline and the spark. They can use road maps to drive a car from New York to San Francisco and can arrive at Sand Francisco without difficulty.

Okay, when this book was written  cars and traveling was probably simpler. However, the analogy remains that people can learn to navigate a car down the road better than they can constructing a sentence.  Why?

For one thing, [students] have often been led to accept and to follow uncritically a large number of rules for the writing of “correct” English. Suppose we look, for example, at some of these “rules.”

1. “Never end a sentence with a preposition.” Must we always say, “On which chair do you wish me sit?” and never “Which chair do you want me to sit on?” Of course not.

2. “Don’t use contractions.” Many English teachers have written this as a comment on themes. Are the teachers using incorrect English?

3. “Avoid slang.” Does this mean that a sports writer or a person writing on jazz must avoid all use of slang?

4. “Never begin a sentence with but or and.” Never? But we are doing it at this very moment.

5. “Always use a comma between two independent clauses joined by and, but, for, or, nor.” In “I was there and he wasn’t,” what good would a comma after “there” do? Probably none at all.
6.”Every sentence must have a subject and a predicate.” If this is always true, why do so many able writers–Steinbeck, Dos Passos, Thomas Wolfe, to name just a few–frequently write sentences that are incomplete, and why do such sentences into English texts as models of style?

That came out of 1949!  I so applaud how the Birks poke at the conventions of stuffiness. My students come up with the above observations all the time! Here is one of the stellar gems of reflection:

Language has been called “the dress of thought”; like dress it needs to be appropriate. Formality and a certain type of correctness are sometimes necessary and desirable, but for everyday expression (written and spoken) a less formal language is usually appropriate, and a different and less formal standard of correctness apples.

All I can say is: Exactly!

The rest of the book is divided up sections of use: Conventions and Meaning; Exercising Intelligent Choice; Developing an Effective Style; Good Paragraphs; Language in Action plus Some Everyday Uses of English.

I think I will settle in with this as my primer for returning to school.  This fall begins the focus on Common Core Standards and last year as I piloted the ninth grade curriculum it became more than apparent that students didn’t give much credence to grammar and were often perplexed by it.  Maybe I can stretch out that car analogy since many of my freshmen will be driving by the end of the year *I always tell them to warn me when they get their permits-jk, jk*: “Hey kiddos, if you can read and memorize the driver’s ed manual in order to pass your test, I know you can do the same with grammar!”

Wait–I know. I will morph the sagacity of this little grammar tome with the unequivocal wisdom of The Beatles:

Grammar police

Grammar police (Photo credit: the_munificent_sasquatch)

Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Yeah. Put your pedal to the metal as you commit to your commas.

Then again, maybe I’ll just fall back on the help of Schoolhouse Rocky because, as you know, Knowledge is Power:

How to Not Write Bad [sic]


Oh, I know.  Nails on a chalk board.  Who could resist a writing book that so deliberately breaks the rules?  I picked this one while checking out of the library about a month ago.  Am I a writing geek or what?  I’m an absolute pushover for author biography books, writing books, or etymology books.  Raise your hand proudly if you’re geeking out in the 808 to 811 section along with me.  Yeah, I see that hand.


So, Ben Yagoda pulls a fast one and gets me to slip, yet another, writing how-to book onto my TBR pile.  His book is economically designed, meaning a person goes, “Hmmm, not even 200 pages.  I’ll flip through it.” And before you know it that mystery you’ve set aside for nightly browsing or weekend reading is on top of the TBR pile.  Yagoda reeled me in.  I wonder if he ever studied marketing…


It’s hard to resist an author whose other titles include:


Cover of "When You Catch an Adjective, Ki...

Cover via Amazon




I tend to sticky-tab as I read.  ET would not like me to annotate the library’s books, would you, dear?  Here is my collection of tabs:


page 17:


The writer Malcolm Gladwell has popularized the notion that, in order to become an outstanding practitioner in any discipline, you need to devote to it roughly 10,000 hours of practice   I’ll accept that in terms of reading.  If you put in two hours a day, that works out to about thirteen and a half years.  If you start when you’re eight, you’ll be done by college graduation.


page 44:


a. The best fruit of all is a ripe juicy flavorful peach.


b. The best fruit of all is a ripe, juicy, flavorful peach.


Why is wrong and right, and how can you decide whether to use commas in these situations? The rule I learned in junior high school still holds. Anytime you can insert the word and between adjectives and it still sounds fine, use a comma. If not, don’t.


page 52:


My initial thought is to limit this entry to one sentence: “If you feel like using a semicolon, lie down until the urge goes away.”


page 82:


2. Skunked


As with words, certain grammatical constructions are considered okay by some or most authorities but retain an offensive odor for many readers (and, crucially, teachers and editors), and should be avoided. This shouldn’t present a problem, since they’re usually not difficult to replace with the correct form.


e. Ly-less Adverbs


[This was a real nice clambake.]


[Think different.]


[He didn’t do so bad.]


[That car sure drives smooth.]


page 124:


Until Microsoft Word comes up with cliche-check to go along with spell-check, you’ll never be able to get rid of every single one.  The best you can hope for is to manage them.


page 172:


Ultimately, as with so much else, it’s a mama bear, and baby bear kind of thing: you’re the one who has to decide what’s just right. 


Yagoda’s style is conversant, punchy, and essential.  I would go as far as to say he is the Strunk and White with a side of wit.  Hey, he writes for the New Yorker, I would expect nothing less.


If you are a writers and don’t want to write badly. I suggest pursuing Yagoda’s book to learn how to avoid the most common writing problems. Writing right is not a bad idea.




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