A Wink and a Fist Bump from Grammar Girl

I first came across Mingon Fogarty’s podcast Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing while finishing my English degree in Education. I was in my very last semester before student teaching and I could not have found a better friend than I did in Mingon’s voice.

What her podcast showed me was that something so compartmentalized and rigid, like grammar, could be meaningful and lightweight if given the right context. In a profession that taught me (through my own K-12 schooling at least) that grammar was the stuff of “do it right or pay the price” and red ink on my papers, Grammar Girl has a special kind of appeal. She comes across as kind and knowledgeable rather than rigid and authoritarian.

The rules of grammar are no less strict in her books–no less Strunk and White–than they should be, but her approach is a very humane one. Her writing focuses on our relationship with recalling the rules and many exceptions of our Standard American English. The rules don’t change, but in her books Fogarty constructs a sturdy scaffold upon which to explore and interact with the most impersonal conventions of language.

Grammar Girl speaks with authority while simultaneously legitimizing the struggles of language misuse and abuse. To borrow words from Billy Collins, her voice is “very blue jeans” and never standoffish. In her newest book The Ultimate Writing Guide for Students, Fogarty gives a more acute context to her kind advice to writers. Whether it’s a reiteration of how to remember Ellude vs Allude or a clarification of how an acronym is not the same as an initialism, her explanations are hand-holding and not leash-choking.

"What Truss does with the wag of a finger, Fogarty does with a wink and a fistbump."

The grammar books I remember from school were dull and not terribly helpful. They used a drill-and-kill-don’t-you-dare-look-in-the-back-of-the-book method to beat me with rules util I was senseless. From a distance, Grammar Girl might just seem like a bookish caricature of your typical “good writer,” but once you get up closer, you’ll find that her “quick and dirty” tips really do stick.

The outline of the book makes it possible to open to almost any page without regard for order and find a useful tidbit on writing. Bright orange letters and bordered boxes make for an easy path with the eyes to and from related material. Students and teachers alike will find value in pop-up sections like “Except That…” and “FYI”  which clearly explain the kind of things you’re most likely pondering at the exact moment of reading.

In 2003, Lynne Truss stirred up the world with her bestseller Eats, Shoots and Leaves by jabbing at people for egregiously mis-punctuating everything. Fogarty’s soul is no doubt shaken when people write things like “CD’s and Book’s!” or “I’ts party time!” but her response is less searing, more endearing. She may cringe when she sees mistakes, but she seeks to teach rather than chide.

When you finally confide in someone (even the distant author of a grammar book) that you really don’t know how or when to use an ellipsis…you need a friend to reach back out to you with the answer, not a bookish old maid slapping your fingers with a ruler. What Truss and many others do with the wag of a finger, Fogarty does with a wink and a fist bump. She knows you can conquer it–a message that’s hard to convey through writing–and she’s nothing but encouraging.

Students of all ages and experiences can benefit from this kind of companion. I plan to keep a copy of her Ultimate Guide in my classroom shelf along with her two other newest selections 101 Misused Words You’ll Never Confuse Again and 101 Words Every High School Graduate Needs to Know.