In some respects, blogging turns out to not be so different from high school: Yeah, it’s taken me a while to get around to my book review, Teach. Sorry. Only this time it isn’t because the dog ate my homework, it’s because my husband disappeared with the book.
The book I’m talking about is Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing by Mignon Fogarty. And Mister MRP, who is a high school English teacher, is quite fond of this particular usage guide. But my recommendation doesn’t rest on that particular laurel—well, not entirely.
Here are five things MRP liked about Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing:
1. Whether you agree with her or not, Fogarty’s approach is generally quite sensible, a sort of “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” of usage guides. She doesn’t take peevology (she refers to “nitpickers”) overly seriously. (Is it, er, nitpicky to point out that I spotted a typo on page 204, where Patricia O’Conner’s name was misspelled?) She thinks there are rules, but there are also exceptions. The writing is lively and accessible, and the book is sincere in its goal of helping readers become better writers:
Usage is about choosing the right word or phrase. It’s something teachers generally expect you to pick up on your own, and it’s the thing you’re most likely to get skewered for if you screw up. (Life is so unfair!) (p. 5)
I think of grammar and usage as the rules to the game of writing, and the rules are just the building blocks of creativity. Writing proper sentences doesn’t ensure that your work will be brilliant and inspiring, but knowing the rules can keep errors from marring your brilliance and inspiration. Never let your fear of mistakes keep you from writing. Just do your best. (p. 191)
2. Fogarty can admit she’s not perfect, in a mild, self-deprecating tone that can be somewhat disarming.
3. The book, like her podcasts, is based on researching a variety of sources, not just her “sense” that something is right or wrong.
4. The book covers all the usual bases—may vs. might, that vs. which, lay vs. lie, prepositions, split infinitives, and so forth—so it’s handy for quick reference. But I also found myself learning a thing or two. Did you know that it’s incorrect to write “Hi John” as a salutation (in the place of “Dear John”)? The correct way is “Hi, John.” Fogarty also drives a stake through the whole use vs. utilize argument by advising that you can write a better, stronger sentence if you just work around that particular problem, which is just good advice to keep in mind generally.
5. The book goes beyond the usual usage guide fare to include a chapter that addresses usage issues raised since the Dawn of the InterWebs, including a guide to writing good e-mails, and a final chapter that serves as a sort of mini-guide on good writing (for example, how to generate story ideas, overcoming writer’s block, or finding the right style guide).
And finally, as I mentioned: 1 out of 1 English teachers surveyed preferred Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing to more traditional usage guides, say, Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. And what more endorsement do you need?