I promised a review of a little grammar text I recently finished, Things Your Grammar Never Told You, and since I’m a man of my words, here goes.

I’ve already given a taste of what I think about this grammar/writing text, so I’ll start off here with some more positive words. I think that this book is a great attempt to make what is for some a very mundane subject (and for others a dangerous obsession) into something interesting and useful – a noble goal, in my opinion. The way that the authors (the late Maurice Scharton and Janice Neulieb, both professors at Illinois State University) choose to do so is through the use of humor, particular an off-beat brand that is meant to evoke the occasional guffaw or chuckle (although your mileage may vary). Here’s a brief sampling:

Like a skimpy bathing suit, clarity can save a lot of guesswork. (p.1)

Educated readers sometimes don’t mind sentence fragments that provide emphasis or clarity in the text. but the writer has to have enough authority to make the reader confident that the fragment is deliberate. College degrees, publications, age, money, and other badges of social authority (except, perhaps, for height and good looks) entitle a writer to use fragments. If you lack social credentials, you’d better clear fragments with the next person in the chain of command — your teacher; editor; boss; mother; or your roommate, the English major.  (p.40) [Authorial note: The semicolons used in this final series seem awkward to me since only the final entry in the series has an appositive requiring a comma, and the conjunction “or” would clearly delineate the end of the series so that there would be no confusion. Am I alone in this?]

Correct usage is the equivalent of dressing properly for the occasion. (p.50)

Historically, middle-class Americans have believed that learning correct English would lead to social and professional success. (Many of these same people also believed in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny early in life.) In fact, people who believe in the magical power of correct English have it backwards: it is success that defines correct English, not correct English that promises success. (pp.50-51)

You get the idea – and the voice throughout carries a light tone that is meant to be supportive and nurturing rather than assertive and authoritarian. It’s grammar advice from some friends, not The Final Word On Grammar Sent Down From On High. I think that’s a worthwhile approach.

I also give this little book high marks for (most of) its attention to language use and the meaning of words. As I’ve mentioned, this is not an authoritarian-style text, and the authors recognize the politics of language (see fourth quote above); the authors also delve briefly into the linguistic notions of malapropisms (with an interesting sidebar about the origin of the term, which is from a character named Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play The Rivals – I always assumed that it was derived from Latin mal- and propos, from whence we get the term apropos) and nonce words. With the exception of a few different words (like insisting that decimate means “to reduce by ten percent”), I think that Scharton and Neulieb have mostly gotten things right, and sometimes in funny ways:

end, terminate […] If you choose terminate when you mean end, you will share consciousness with the “suits” who write letters firing people and canceling insurance policies. This is very bad karma.

I think that the only thing in language use that I would have liked to see discussed are eggcorns (which would help keep writers from writing things like “supposably”), but I can’t very well expect the authors to have included it given that the term was coined two years after this second edition was published. (Funny sidebar: A coworker of mine once used the eggcorn “disgression” for “discretion,” and I have long wanted to submit it to the Eggcorn Database. Turns out that she isn’t the only one to have made this error.)

Overall, it’s not a bad little text, although I found myself intentionally thinking of counterexamples whenever strict rules were stated (and I think some of them do have counterexamples, despite not having any at the moment). The MLA/APA/Chicago style reference material seems pretty sound – although not exhaustive – and I think that Scharton and Neulieb make good suggestions on style and clarity. Still, I think the fact that so many style remarks are made, but they never make the point obvious which I think students need to know: The way you use language is highly dependent on the context in which you are using it. Using language that is too formal for a context will make you seem elitist and snobbish; using language that is too informal will make you seem like you are unprofessional, uneducated, or apathetic (or maybe just pathetic). Yes, there’s probably a degree to which Scharton and Neulieb assume an academic or professional audience, but I would like to see a grammar text that engages the idea of code-switching – changing registers, style, tone, and language in general based on the context.

Am I asking too much?

Probably, but despite my high expectations, this comes reasonably close. I think I would probably recommend the book, but – as always – under proper supervision.