Grammar-usage books make it to my desk often. I rarely write about them because they are irritating to read and use or just don’t have anything new to offer. A new book is out that I like. It’s “Mortal Syntax” by June Casagrande, who writes a newspaper column called “A Word, Please.” This is her second book; her first had the funny title “Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies.”
“Mortal Syntax” (Penguin Paperback Originals, $14) has the subtitle “101 Language Choices That Will Get You Clobbered by the Grammar Snobs – Even If You Are Right.” And that’s exactly what you get with “Mortal Syntax.” Casagrande goes through 101 of the most disputed grammar-usage issues such as fun as an adjective, “for free,” whom and “one of the only.” In other words, she writes about the very issues that I
hear from readers about hear about from readers. [edited 4:22 p.m. March 30, 2008. — I heard from a reader.]
Casagrande tells you whether a certain usage is OK, wrong or questionable. She points out that “way cool” is informal but fine, that “for free” is “not best, but not wrong either” and that “enormity” to mean vast is “enormously frowned upon.” “Mortal Syntax” is a bar bet book: It’s small and has a good table of contents, and you could carry it with you to settle disputes that might arise over a beer.
Casagrande has a gently snarky style, and some lines tickled me. She says, for instance, that her column was titled “A Word, Please,” not “Every Curmudgeon’s Long-Awaited Opportunity to Rant Like a Lunatic About Other People’s Grammar Mistakes.” (Uh, that would be this blog, it appears.) She also doesn’t take herself seriously, an important qualification if you’re going to write about grammar and usage.
The best reason to have this little paperback is that Casagrande consults a wide range of reliable language experts’ books. She uses many of the same books that I have in my library: “Garner’s Modern American Usage,” “Fowler’s Modern English Usage,” “The Careful Writer,” “The Chicago Manual of Style,” “The Associated Press Stylebook” and others. And she checks various dictionaries.
Here is my favorite part of the book. Casagrande is in a motel room on the phone with a radio call-in show as a “grammar expert.” Folks want her to settle their grammar-usage issues. She’s going to have to answer the questions. Yikes! She has help, though, because she has the books she relies on. She can answer the question with “according to ‘Garner’s Modern AmericanUsage’ …” Then she writes:
“The point of this story is that most people who are insecure in their use of the language assume they’re supposed to have all the answers in their heads. And I believe this misperception is one of the biggest hindrances to learning grammar. There’s too much to commit to memory. It’s too overwhelming so we give up. Don’t. All you need to know are some fundamentals of grammar — the basics — and where to turn for answers to the specifics.”
That’s the truth, dear readers. Have a good dictionary nearby whenever you write. If you wonder whether a term is one word, two words or hyphenated, look it up. If you run across a knotty problem that the dictionary can’t help you with, consult a good usage guide or style book.
This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.