Monday, August 24, 2009

Great Big Meanies (A backlist book review)

I must confess: I'm guilty of book-rustling. Last week, someone left a book lying around the break room at work and I couldn't find anyone who would claim it. (I did try to ask permission before borrowing it, honest!)

I really do try not to judge a book by its cover, but Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies strikes me as a deliberate attempt to provoke an exquisitely-erudite riot. Surely I was doing a service to my fellow grammarians by removing it from the writing center for the weekend.

We wouldn't want the grammar snobs to riot, now would we? (Though I admit that the image of disapproving grammarians toting well-punctuated picket signs tickles me somewhat.)

All seriousness aside, newspaper copy editor June Casagrande has made grammar funny again. She has written what I can only describe as the anti-Eats Shoots and Leaves by lobbing the verbal hand grenade back across the lines.

It seems impossible that someone can teach you the difference between the subjunctive and indicative verb forms and effect the pantsing of the entire English language establishment in one go, but Ms Casagrande manages it. Not only does she manage it, but she makes it funny.

At risk of cliche I must say: This is not your father's grammar guide. In fact, if you want to test Fitzgerald's axiom about first-rate intelligence ("...the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function") then you should read this book back-to-back with the humorously-fussy Eats Shoots and Leaves. You would be surprised to know that it's possible without your head exploding, but only just. (I just did it and the headache lingers.) Somewhere between Lynn Truss's call to take up arms in the fight against the Decline and Fall of Western Punctuation and June Casagrande imploring us to get a grip lies the battlefield where most of us live.

Think of Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies as a survival guide for those of us caught in the combat zone. Casagrande has provided a strategy guide for those put-upon by the free-roaming grammar snobs in our midst.
"It's time, oh yes, it's time for the rest of us to stand up to these snobs--to call their bluff. If not for our own edification, if not to gain a better command of the language and all the doors it opens to us--at the very least we must learn a little about grammar and usage for the sheer thrill of taking down these grammar tyrants, one at a time, just to watch them fall."
Each chapter is targeted at a specific common error that is harped-upon by those who wish to polish their linguistic credentials on the foreheads of those less fortunate. Casagrande makes her hyperbolic stance work by using self-deprecating anecdotes and a liberal dose of dark humor. She makes short work of the Oxford Comma, the predicate nominative, semicolons, punctuation within quotes and a host of other issues that define the linguistic battlefield. In fact, by staking out the two ends of the grammar spectrum, this book and Eats, Shoots & Leaves work remarkably well together.

You might want to keep them apart of your bookshelf though, lest you have to break up a fight.

This is a highly-recommended addition to your reference library and a darn fun read. How often do you hear those two things in the same sentence?

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).