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For the Language Sticklers in Us All April 14, 2007

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Reviews, Technology.

After taking the podcast plunge, and because it was highly recommended, I now find myself one of Grammar Girl’s avid listeners. One of the top twenty podcasts on iTunes, Grammar Girl “strives to be [listeners’] friendly guide in the writing world.” Suffice it to say she succeeds quite marvelously. The charming podcast tackles many a writer’s conundrum, ranging from the seemingly mundane (single or double quotation marks?) to the subtly more vexing (the subjunctive mood). Each five- to ten-minute installment helps demistify the nuances of English grammar in a manner that is both informative and entertaining, a feat not easily accomplished.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been drawn towards such commentary on the English language. In fact, before tuning into Grammar Girl there were two books along the same vein that I found simply irresistible and would now recommend in a heartbeat.

The first of these happened to be Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves. It derives its title from a joke: a panda lets loose some gunfire after eating at a restaurant because — and here’s the punch line — an encyclopedia mistakenly states that a panda “eats, shoots and leaves.”

A book about punctuation might seem like a hard-sell, but this one is a gem. Lynne Truss’s keen wit manages to keep the book interesting, and the volume is put together so well that it can serve as an informal style guide on its own. After reading Eats, Shoots and Leaves, one cannot help but be more conscious about punctuation, especially with Truss pointing out that the word punctuation shares the same etymology as punctilious, which means “polite”. Indeed, what better way is there to convince people to be meticulous with how they punctuate if not to frame it as a matter of good manners towards their readers?

Shifting gears, the other volume I would recommend is William Safire’s The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time. Those who live where the New York Times is not readily available (i.e., most readers of this blog) may not be aware that the former Nixon speechwriter is the author of the broadsheet’s popular On Language column. The Right Word is a compendium of some entries from that column, dealing with anything from the peculiar etymology of words and phrases (such as spookspeak, the jargon of professional spies) to the unexpected ways that language evolves (as in the phrase “begging the question,” which doesn’t at all mean what people think).

As the title suggests, the book is presented like a dictionary and organized around words that give Safire occasion to elucidate on the aforementioned themes. Overall, the book is certainly a tad esoteric; nonetheless, it is a worthwhile read if only to acquire some taken for granted erudition.

Any of the above can come across as the sort of thing that would appeal to the narrowest of markets, namely the hordes of closet language geeks who obsess over every bit of syntax and probably have a spelling bee or two under their belts. While there may be some truth to this (say it isn’t so!), these represent resources that provide intelligent commentary on the English language and bring to light how fascinating the language itself can be. If they accomplish anything it would be to help people better appreciate the English language, in the process furthering the cause of putting it to better use.



1. sulz - April 14, 2007

i’ve read the second book in your post and loved it, so i’d be really interested in the other ones too. i’ll be sure to borrow it from the library if i do find them.


2. Brian L. Belen - April 14, 2007

You’d probably be interested in Text Twist, too. It was very tempting to include it in the post, but I couldn’t think of a way to segue into language-related games. =p

Thanks for reading!

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