Author: Luisa Perkins
•12:01 AM

I heart grammar.

Here's why. The object of prose writing--novels, essays, short stories, blog posts--is communication and expression. To communicate clearly, prose should only be a vehicle; it should never draw attention to itself (poetry is another story). If it does, it distracts the reader, and its effectiveness to communicate the underlying idea is diluted. If I'm reading fiction, for example, the minute I focus on the words, I've fallen out of the story. Not good.

In order to have the most transparent and effective communication, a writer should pay attention to infrastructure: spelling, grammar, punctuation, and usage. Otherwise the writer runs the risk of losing her audience.

Let's say I want to brush up on current politics. I drop in on a popular blogger to get her view on the latest GOP scandal. As I read, I encounter spelling errors and usage of the word 'lay' when the writer clearly meant 'lie.' Since I can't trust her knowledge of the rules of her chosen medium, I find I also can't trust the opinion she is attempting to convey.

I'm not a licensed grammarian (nor do I play one on TV, more's the pity). However, my daily dealings with the general public lead me to believe that I know more--or, at least, care more--about spelling, grammar, punctuation, and usage than does the average bear.

The reference books on my desk are probably another clue:


In case you can't read the spines, the books pictured are (from left to right):

The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary;
The American Heritage Dictionary;
Words into Type;
The Chicago Manual of Style;
The Modern Rhyming Dictionary;
The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations;
The Little, Brown Handbook of Grammar;
Roget's 21st Century Thesaurus;
Strunk & White's The Elements of Style; and
20,001 Names for Baby (I use it for naming characters).

Not pictured but often consulted is Fowler's Modern English Usage; I keep that one by my bed.

I'm afraid I'm not kidding.

I'm trying something new here at Novembrance for the next few Fridays: I'm going to write a piece each week on a little-understood, much-abused rule of grammar or usage. I might toss in some punctuation or spelling advice just for spice. I'll try to keep the posts brief and entertaining, and we'll see how it goes.

Disclaimer 1: Since I heart grammar, it's possible that you and I have different ideas of what constitutes entertainment.

Disclaimer 2: I sometimes break the rules. In fact, I've broken several rules of formal written English already in this post. Usually I do it consciously for various creative reasons, but sometimes things slip by me. I'm not setting myself up as any sort of infallible authority, even though one of Patrick's pet names for me is "The Grammar Fascista."

Disclaimer 3: The rules of written English differ slightly depending on the field in which one is writing. For example, the rules of the Modern Language Association (MLA) govern the world of academia, while the Chicago Manual of Style and Words Into Type are large and in charge in the world of mainstream publishing. The latter arena will be my focus here. I haven't written a term paper in years, so when you need the nitpicky details of academese and its particular shibboleths, ask someone else.

Now that we have all that out of the way, here's a little snippet of usage goodness to kick things off.

The word 'unique' means "being the only one of its kind...without equal or equivalent; unparalleled."

In other words, 'unique' is an incomparable; either something is unique, or it isn't. If you don't believe me, go ask Stephen King. 'Unique' should never be modified with adverbs such as 'very,' 'more,' or 'so.' (Fowler says 'unique' can tolerate a very few adverbs, 'almost,' 'nearly,' and 'perhaps' being the best examples. But Fowler was a pro; my advice to you is to err on the side of caution and don't modify it at all.)

Bad usage: "Her hairstyle is totally unique."

Good usage: "Her hairstyle is unique," or "Her hairstyle is very unusual."

There you have it. Tune in next Friday for another installment from the Fascista (but I'll be around here plenty in the meantime, so don't be a stranger).


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33 comments:

On 17/4/08 , Jen of A2eatwrite said...

LOVE it! And I love the Grammar Fascista banner, too.

Very unique idea. (Just joking - I couldn't resist, being the first one to comment).

 
On 17/4/08 , Karlene said...

This is such a totally cool idea!

Sorry. Couldn't help myself.

 
On 17/4/08 , cablegirl said...

Is it really possible to play a licensed grammarian on TV? That is probably my dream job.

About prose as merely a vehicle I agree for the most part with notable exceptions. for example I think the Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting lost nothing but gained a good bit from the dialectical style.

 
On 17/4/08 , Jenna Consolo said...

Good start! I love it so far. And I remember Mr. King pointing out this gross error. I've been terrified of doing it accidentally ever since. (dare I ask...have I? I know you've been watching!)

xoxo

 
On 17/4/08 , Kimberly said...

You are so cute! I heart grammar as well, but more in the I've seen it from a distance and admire it sort of love. Grammar and I? We are not intimately acquainted. But there are certain basic rules which, when flaunted, make me twitch a bit. Your/You're is the most notable example.

 
On 18/4/08 , Annette Lyon said...

I'll be awaiting each Friday with excitement. I have a feeling I heart grammar just as much as you do--and I heart people who love grammar. :)

I seriously want a mouse pad with that banner.

 
On 18/4/08 , Syar said...

I'm a spelling freak, so I'm constantly correcting typos, but my friends call me a grammar nazi, which isn't correct, because I take more liberties with language than I care to mention.

So your Friday lessons will be great for helping me live up to my nickname. :)

 
On 18/4/08 , Julie Wright said...

can we still be friends even if I never know when to use lay or lie? This is why my characters doze off in chairs . . . so much easier!

 
On 18/4/08 , Thalia's Child said...

I cannot find my Strunk and White anywhere.


Also. I cannot use semi-colons appropriately. I don't know why. I just can't - and even when I think I've used it right, inevitably, it's incorrect.

 
On 18/4/08 , Goofball said...

Excellent initiative. I'll be paying much attention to it each week. It's just what I need since I'm arrogant enough to pretend I can have a blog in English while one in my native language wouldn't even be without unforgivable errors.

So...I have loads of potential for learning and I'll try to be a good student :)

 
On 18/4/08 , Lilacspecs said...

Fabulous idea! I'm usually good with grammar (not always in my blog) but it's always good to know a little more about any topic. A specal request though: the semi-colon is so often neglected and I love it. Seriously, I ♥ semi-colons! Could you post about the usage thereof?

Heh and if I have made any grammatical errors here, please forgive me. A Fascista I am not.

 
On 18/4/08 , Luisa Perkins said...

CG, you make an excellent point. I will discuss it in my next Fascista post.

You all need to RELAX. :D I'm not reading your blogs and emails with red pen in hand like some sadistic schoolmistress, just waiting for you to blunder.

I repeat that I make mistakes all the time; I'm not here to cast any stones. This experiment will be more helpful to me than to any of you, I'm sure.

 
On 18/4/08 , Luisa Perkins said...

Oh, and Goofball? I am beyond impressed that you maintain such a terrific blog in your second language. If I tried to write a blog in French--a language I studied for 12 years and spoke fluently for a short stretch of time--it would read like the scribblings of a kindergartner with severe learning disabilities. I bow to you, my friend.

 
On 18/4/08 , Goofball said...

thanks but you are too mild for me. I've already discovered huge blunders on my blog...I'm sure native English speakers have sometimes their hair rising in their neck when reading some of my posts :D

But thanks to be so forgiven, knowing that you are a grammar fascista.

 
On 18/4/08 , Radioactive Jam said...

A fine Friday Feature, this. I look forward to future installments, even though I don't believe you about the no red pen.

Also your new name = Sadie Schoolmistress.

 
On 18/4/08 , luisaj said...

This is all well and good, I suppose, my dear. You know that I heart grammar, too, and I heart you even more. My question for you is, "Why are you up at midnight, my pregnant darling, writing about grammar and usage?"
XO, Mom

 
On 18/4/08 , Anne Bradshaw said...

Yay for you, Luisa! I'm coming back for more, and that's for sure. There's always something to learn.

Speaking of which, do check out my yesterday's blog about author David Wolverton/Farland's free ongoing writing course by email. It's a winner for all writers everywhere.

 
On 18/4/08 , Brillig said...

I'm going to lay down right here and read you're totally and completely unique take on grammer.

(Oh, I'm sorry... did I hurt the Grammar Fascista's head with that sentence?)

My daddy, as I think I've told you before, lectured and wrote for the MLA. So... you and I may have different opinions sometimes. hahahaha. Oh, oh! Can I fight with you sometimes? Hahahaha. No, I know that you'll eat me alive...

By the way, I think I'm going to LOVE this new segment of yours. Friday is my new favorite day. :-)

 
On 18/4/08 , Josi said...

Unlike most of your commenters, I skull&crossbones grammar--no heart anywhere to be seen. However, I be a writer and so I must learn this stuff. I never knew how to use unique, and am forever in your debt. AND you said it in a way that I will remember it. "Never Modify Unique, it either is or it isn't," See how well I remember?

 
On 18/4/08 , SydneyMin said...

Lurker coming forward here... I think grammar and language should be everyone's primary task, but then who would take out the trash? Hmm... I always find myself overusing or second-guessing my over-usage of commas and hyphens/dashes. I love them! And speaking of the OED, have you read The Meaning of Everything: History of the OED?

 
On 18/4/08 , James Dashner said...

Great post, Luisa. I heart grammar about as much as I heart gouging my own eyeballs out. Thanks for the unique lesson. Pretty sure I've misused that one, uh huh.

 
On 18/4/08 , billy safire said...

(The rest of you can call me William. Thank you.)

Luisa, did you read my column this past Sunday? If you did, I’m flattered. If not, then I’m now more very totally convinced that we’re passengers on the same cosmic grammatical-mystery tour – motoring in a Pescara Spyder, no doubt. Yee haw.

I adore your logo art. In fact, I’m salivating at the sight of it. Might I make another teensy suggestion for the new regime? Uniforms. We fascistas are nothing if not lockstep in dress. I’ve got just the thing: a little black shirt.

Well, then. Let the flagellations begin – or continue.
Yeah baby.

 
On 18/4/08 , Anonymous said...

I'm reading a grammar/style writing book published in 1986. The author, whose name escapes me (I could go upstairs and look, but I'm suffering from my afternoon slump, so I won't/can't), is not a fascista at all, but rather an anarchist. It is quite liberating when I'm feeling overwhelmed with trying to choose the exact word to fill a spot in a sentence.
Melissa

 
On 18/4/08 , Luisa Perkins said...

Darling Billy,

Normally I read your column with religious fervor; however, time escaped me this past weekend.

But no worries: recycling has not yet left the building, and I will read it straightaway, my dear man.

Black shirts with logo? Me likey, pal. Me likey.

 
On 19/4/08 , Goofball said...

Do you know that on Thursday, just before your post, I've posted something with a wrong use of "unique" in it.

But in the mean time it's corrected.

 
On 19/4/08 , allysha said...

Oh! I heart grammar, too. I am not without my inadvertent misuses, but I am strangely fond of punctuation marks.

 
On 20/4/08 , poodlegoose said...

I was just having a conversation with my fiance's father the other day about the misuse of "unique". He is a professor and sees people misuse the word quite frequently, and much more than I would have suspected. I'm not the greatest at formal grammar, but I do know that "the most unique idea ever" is quite incorrect.

Looking forward to Fridays (more than before, anyway :)).

 
On 20/4/08 , dawn said...

Great idea. It will be great to learn some new grammar and word usage tips. I might be one using the words lay and lie incorrectly. It is one of the usages I ponder over when having to write one of them. I don't have the references you do (but have some) and frankly when writing my blog (my only writing), I don't take the time to check. More often if I don't know the word or the spelling of something, I change the sentence to use a different word. I am looking forward to your Friday posts.

 
On 20/4/08 , Crystal Liechty said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
 
On 20/4/08 , Crystal Liechty said...

I don't heart grammer, but I enjoyed this post so much maybe you'll change my mind. I was laughing out loud the whole time.

 
On 20/4/08 , Annette Lyon said...

Um . . . was that THE William Safire commenting on your blog?

If grammar fascistas had someone they'd scream and shout about like girls at an Elvis concert, he'd be it. Can I touch you, Luisa? Then I can be cool by association.

 
On 21/4/08 , painted maypole said...

i'm going to learn stuff, i just know it! (and i always have trouble with the lay/lie thing. i learn it and forget it. everytime)

 
On 29/4/08 , charrette said...

Oh, if only my mother were alive to revel in this, God rest her Rhyming Dictionary!

Excellent idea! My Spelling Queen tiara is a bit tarnished with typos, so I too bow down to the Grammar Fascista.