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Grammar Girl’s book for students is approachable, orange

Grammar was not my subject. In high school English class, we did a unit on grammar every semester. It always seemed to be the same thing to me. The work was either obvious (I could recite “Grammar Rock” with the best of them) or unnecessarily confusing (English is like that). The book we used seemed authoritative, but there just seemed to be more rules and guidelines in there than anyone could possibly know. There wasn’t, it turned out, but it seemed that way.

I might be decades behind the time in my perception of grammar textbooks, but the criteria I would use to judge are the level of detail (less is more), the level of intimidation, and the clarity of the rules listed.

My first impression of Mignon Fogarty’s new student grammar is that it’s very orange. It’s inescapably orange with a cover reminiscent of the old Chicago Manual of Style (now blue) and a matching orange inside for headings, examples and shading. Its title opts for bravado over brevity: “Grammar Girl Presents the Ultimate Writing Guide for Students.” It has cartoon drawings, most featuring the familiar Aardvark and Squiggly (a snail) of previous Grammar Girl books. We can give it points for lack of intimidation right away.

Before I get too deep into my opinions, a disclosure: Mignon Fogarty and I tend to run with the same crowd; we’re friends. My daughter worked as her intern. And she sent me her books to review. I can’t write an unbiased review, but I’ll do my best. I wouldn’t have agreed to look at her books if I didn’t have immense respect for the job she does as Grammar Girl.

My appreciation of Fogarty has always been her approach, which is to thoroughly research questions and give clear answers that acknowledge exceptions. Her popularity stems not from her authority as an experienced English teacher or university professor (she’s neither), but from the idea that she’s there to help those who seek help. She doesn’t claim to know all, but she’s happy to check it out and get back to you. And when she does, she doesn’t overlook history, reasoning and common usage to pedantically wag a finger (at a split infinitive, for instance).

This book reflects the Grammar Girl formula. It’s friendly, funny, conversational and scholarly. Here, for example, is Fogarty’s advice on answering the phone for those who still answer phones.When people call me and ask, “May I speak to Grammar Girl?” I properly respond, “This is she.”

She explains why, then acknowledges reality:Now, the problem is that 90 percent of you are almost certainly thinking, “That sounds really weird. Is she serious?” Well, yeah, I’m serious. That is the traditional rule, but fortunately, most grammarians forgive you for not following the rule because it sounds fussy, even to us.

“The Ultimate Writing Guide for Students” follows the course I expect of a grammar book, starting with parts of speech (“A noun is a person, place or thing”), working through sentence structure and punctuation, and ending with tips on writing. I imagine young learners mastering the basics the rushing forward to the really useful stuff starting in chapter four: affect vs. effect, bring vs. take, fewer vs. less, hanged vs. hung, lay vs. lie, nauseous vs. nauseated, who vs. whom. It concludes with a useful but brief set of appendices with quick tips.

Fogarty’s audience for a student grammar might not be so eager to seek help as those who follow her through her podcasts, website, e-mail notices and previous books. But this new grammar does not intimidate, it does not overwhelm and it is clearly presented for easy digestion.

Years ago, I used to keep extra copies of Rene Cappon’s “The Word” to give to budding newspaper journalists. Now, I intend to keep a few of these orange books around for young learners.

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