Mighty Red Pen

February 16, 2009

Things That Make Word Nerds [Sic]

A colleague asked me the other day “Do you read usage guides for fun?” and she might as well have tacked on “your supreme dorkiness” at the end of that sentence.

Well, duh. Don’t you?

Yes, MRP reads usage guides for fun, and I’m always gratified when one in fact turns out to be fun. That was the case with Things That Make Us [Sic] by Martha Brockenbrough, founder of the Society for Promotion of Good Grammar (SPOGG) and National Grammar Day (which is right around the corner on March 4 and of which—full disclosure—MRP is a participating blog).

It’s a comprehensive and lively usage guide, a little like riding a bike too quickly around the corner: you hold on for dear life and enjoy the exhilarating ride. Brockenbrough is nothing if not totally enthusiastic about matters related to grammar, punctuation, spelling, and language. There’s no doubt: she loves words and that feeling shines through.

It is time for those of us who love and respect our language to take it back. Clear, grammatical communication is society’s foundation. It is what helps us understand and be understood. If we let this bedrock crumble from neglect, or if we chip away at it in a misguided fit of anti-intellectualism, then we run the risk of watching the world around us collapse.

Brockenbrough’s personal touch comes from sharing letters that she has written (as SPOGG) to a diverse group of recipients, from the Queen of England to David Hasselhoff to fallen congressman Mark Foley (as if he didn’t have bigger things to worry about than the grammaticality of the phrase, “How my favorite young stud doing?”). Come prepared with your pop culture hat on or many of the references will elude you (e.g., “A single misplaced curve cost NBC’s fictionary television lawyer Ed his job at New York law firm.”)

There are but a few places where Brockenbrough’s enthusiasm perhaps leads her astray (for example, she may have set her expectations too high in critiquing electronic spam for misspelling and bad punctuation, which is done to evade spam filters and not necessarily because spammers don’t know how to spell). In another instance, a letter to the Toronto Maple Leafs chastises them for an ungrammatical name (should it be the Toronto Maple Leaves? Brockenbrough is certain that’s the case; Goofy has an interesting opposing view). But she does take risks and that’s certainly something.

You’ll find the usual usage guide suspects (including but not limited to: homonyms, clichés, Latin phrases, commonly misspelled words). But Things That Make Us [Sic] also reaches a level of hipness that Fowler could only dream of, investigating how neologisms from “The Simpsons” find their way into the dictionary or the grammaticality of “I Can Has Cheezburger.”  Throughout it all, Brockenbrough maintains a balanced view:

There are two kind of language people in the world: the ones who believe language has firm rules that must be respected forever, and the ones who believe the rules are rewritten all the time by the people using the language. In other words, if it’s spoken, it can’t be wrong.

They’re both right. They’re also both totally wrong.

If, like MRP, you already read usage guides, Things That Make Us [Sic] will be a welcome addition to your collection. If you don’t, this might be the one that makes you start.



  1. I have some doubts about the idea that Fowler ever dreamed of hipness.

    Comment by David — February 17, 2009 @ 10:06 am | Reply

  2. It’s interesting that on the same page as the passage about the world collapsing, Brockenbrough writes

    “These are unlikely misunderstandings, but that doesn’t mean there are no risks to sloppy English. If you don’t speak or write well, others are likely to assume you are stupid, uneducated, or both.”

    So two theories are presented: using bad grammar will cause society to collapse, or using bad grammar is a social marker that will cause you to be stigmatized. I think the first theory is implausible, but the second one makes some sense.

    Comment by goofy — February 18, 2009 @ 8:50 am | Reply

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