Sunday, January 10, 2010

Have you ever been called a Grammar Nazi?

I have. Often. Now I take pride in it. Right before I left New York I took a copyediting class at NYU and so I know how much worse than me some people are (I was probably the most lax in the class.) But now that I’m not at a publishing house anymore, I see how desperately necessary copyeditors are. I’ve seen egregious typos in printed materials that we hand out to customers (spell check doesn’t catch when you leave the L out of “public libraries!”) I’ve been shocked by some colleagues and I wonder if they are even literate. We sell books for pete’s sake! We sell dictionaries! The Chicago Manual of Style! Bookstores and libraries have higher standards when it comes to the grammar and spelling of their vendors than other retail establishments do, and they have the right to that expectation. Or at least that’s always my defense when I am correcting insure/ensure and less/fewer in presentations written by higher-ups.

A few years ago Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies: A Guide to Language for Fun and Spite was recommended to me as a joke. I loved it. I read it in Florida at the beach. I remember standing in line for TKTS in the bitter cold in New York reading Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (I find Ms. Truss a bit of an extremist but I loved her story about standing outside the movie marquee of “Two Weeks Notice” with an apostrophe on a stick.) I read Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English for fun.

What I find even more fun than straight-up grammar though is the stories behind words. Made in America and The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way by Bill Bryson were informative and funny. I find books like this to be perfect bedside reading. Nothing to get me riled up or excited. Nothing I can’t put down easily. Nothing that I can’t take long gaps in when a different book takes precedence. Last year it was Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, ... With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory (one of the longest titles in my library.) The prior year it was By Hook or by Crook: A Journey in Search of English. And on my bedside table right now is Anonyponymous: The Forgotten People Behind Everyday Words.

For the word-ophiles out there like me, a must read is Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters by Mark Dunn. Ella lives on an island whose only famous resident was the author of the pangram: “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” (A pangram is a sentence that uses every letter of the alphabet. There are other pangrams but this is thought by some to be the shortest.) Totalitarianism is encroaching, and through Ella’s letters to her friends, the ridiculous results are hilariously obvious. The memorial to the pangram is old and decrepit, and therefore is losing letters. As each letter is lost, it is banned from the island. A few are easily worked around (using PH instead of F) but with each successive loss, the creativity involved to continue communicating is laugh-out-loud. This sweet book is the ultimate book for bookophiles.

(That’s ultimate, not penultimate mind you, which means second from the ultimate, not better than ultimate.)


Kristen said...

I *loved* Ella Minnow Pea. I also have his Ibid here, which is all told in footnotes. (Haven't read this one yet though.) And I kow it will be a big surprise to you that I enjoy all the sorts of books you've mentioned. I am the person to whom people say they are afraid to write anything. I thought I only muttered in my own head, never out loud. ;-)

Sarah at SmallWorld said...

I came over from Book Blogs and really enjoy your writing. After reading this post, now I know why!