G Is for Grammar

Grammar scares the hell out of many people. In the very late 1990s, when I started participating in online groups that weren’t oriented to editors and/or writers, people would sometimes apologize to me for their bad grammar or spelling. Once in a while someone would attack me for making them feel inferior. I was mystified. For one thing, their grammar wasn’t bad at all, and for another I wasn’t criticizing anyone’s grammar, spelling, or anything else.

Then I got it: I was using the same sig line I used in online groups of writers, editors, and other word people. It identified me as an editor. I cut “editor” out of my sig line. The apologies and attacks stopped.

Grammar gets a bad rap. (NB: I just took a little detour to look up “bad rap,” like why isn’t it “bad rep,” as in “reputation”? Check it out on the Merriam-Webster’s website.) Plenty of us learned in school that there’s only one right way to write and every other way is substandard. Taken to heart, that’s enough to paralyze anybody.

There’s no shortage of people who’ll sort you into a category according to how you speak or write. (Take a break here if you like to listen to “Why Can’t the English?” from My Fair Lady.) A common assumption seems to be that editors all come from this judgmental tribe. While it’s true that most of us who become editors were language adepts in school — we spot grammatical errors and misspellings as readily as musicians detect sour notes in a concert — the best editors I know put serious effort into learning more about how our language is used in the real world, and how writers use it.

Some grammars are descriptivist: they describe how a language is used by its speakers. Others are prescriptivist: they tell speakers of a language how they ought to be using it. Language changes over time, no doubt about it. It also varies across different populations, which is why both writers and editors need to consider the audience for whatever they’re working on.

Think of grammar as a tool in your toolkit. As tools go, it’s a pretty complex one and takes a while to master — it’s more like a piano than a screwdriver. On the other hand, a sentence has fewer moving parts than the human body, so learning the parts of speech takes a lot less time than learning all the bones and muscles. Understanding how the parts are supposed to work together makes it easier to recognize when a sentence isn’t working, how to fix it, and how to explain it all to someone else.

If you never learned to diagram sentences in school, or even if you did, you might find that diagramming helps you visualize how the parts of a sentence fit together. There are plenty of how-tos online, including this one.

Since my first editorial job four decades ago, my go-to reference for grammar questions has been Words Into Type. It hasn’t been revised in just about that long, so it can be hard to find, so I asked some editorial colleagues what their favorite references were. Here are a few of them:

  • The Copyeditor’s Handbook, 4th ed., by Amy Einsohn and Marilyn Schwartz, University of California Press. I’ve got the 3rd edition, the last one Amy completed solo before her death in 2014. And no, it’s not just for copyeditors.
  • Good Grief, Good Grammar: The Business Person’s Guide to Grammar and Usage, by Dianna Booher, Ballantine Books
  • The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation, by Jane Straus, Lester Kaufman, and Tom Stern, Wiley
  • The Gregg Reference Manual, by William Sabin, McGraw-Hill
  • The Little, Brown Handbook, by H. Ramsey Fowler, Jane E. Aaron, and Michael Greer, Pearson
  • The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed., University of Chicago Press. Also available by subscription online. I’ve been using it since the 12th edition, when it was still called A Manual of Style.
My go-to reference books