Book review: ‘Founding Grammars’

In the summer of 2014, “Weird Al” Yankovic released “Word Crimes,” a sarcastic blast at what the song parodist saw as the decline of proper grammar, word choice and punctuation. Yankovic is a stickler on “whom” and “literally,” and he is an advocate of diagramming sentences. A link to the song’s video was widely shared on social media, and anyone who works as a writer or editor probably received an email from a friend or relative about it.

Not everyone enjoyed the song’s mocking humor, however. On the Language Log blog, linguist Ben Zimmer called it the “ultimate peever’s anthem.” Mignon Fogarty of the University of Nevada-Reno, perhaps better known as Grammar Girl, wrote on her website: “I don’t believe in word crimes, and I don’t believe in encouraging people to think about language that way.”

Such a battle between prescriptivists and descriptivists of language feels like a contemporary phenomenon. Certainly, the Internet has led to plenty of chatter about “they” as a singular pronoun as well as debates about serial commas, split infinitives and prepositions at the end of sentences.

foundgrammarsBut in “Founding Grammars: How Early America’s War over Words Shaped Today’s Language,” author Rosemarie Ostler shows that this conversation about language has been taking place since the founding of the United States. It is not new, but it is fascinating.

In eight chapters, Ostler takes the reader through grammar’s evolution in the United States. She does so in a roughly chronological way, from Noah Webster through Geoffrey Pullum. In between, Ostler covers the inside stories on “The Elements of Style” and the Merriam-Webster dictionary, as well as lesser-known works such as “The Institutes of English Grammar” by Goold Brown and “Every-Day English” by Richard Grant White.

“Founding Grammars” begins with an origin story. Shortly after the American Revolution, Webster sought to further declare the new nation’s independence via a distinctly American way of speaking and writing. He and others saw grammar knowledge as essential to the country’s success.

Grammar books and dictionaries were, as Ostler describes them, “the self-help manuals of their time.” These grammarians, however, did not always agree on the details, leading to the type of debates over language that we still see today.

Elsewhere, Ostler weaves issues of politics, ethnicity and class into grammar’s history. In the presidential election of 1828, Andrew Jackson was criticized for his “shaky spelling skills” among other language-based shortcomings. Abraham Lincoln faced similar attacks when he ran for the White House in 1860. Ostler explains the motive for such criticism: “Saying that Lincoln didn’t know how to use the language correctly was an indirect way of saying that he was from the lower classes and therefore unworthy to be president.” Yet both men were popular with the American public because of their plain-spoken manner, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address used what was considered the proper grammar of the era.

After the Civil War, the “verbal critics” emerged, dispensing advice on English as a way to raise and maintain a person’s social status. Some of these grammarians had a streak of bias in their guidance, disapproving of words such as “smithereens” and “hooligan” brought to America by immigrants from Ireland.

At the same time, the study of language took hold at U.S. universities. Academics such as Thomas Lounsbury of Yale University argued that English was constantly changing and that the elitist directives of the verbal critics were based on whim rather than science.

“Founding Grammars” includes debates about changes in spelling and word choice as well as grammar itself. A linguist and former librarian, Ostler leans toward the descriptivist camp. Maintaining a neutral tone, she tips her hand on occasion, describing “The Elements of Style” as “relentlessly conservative.”

But this is a history book, not a writing guide, and it’s a successful and entertaining one. Ostler’s level of detail is impressive throughout “Founding Grammars.” The reader learns, among other things, that Webster worked on his famous dictionary using a standing desk and that Davy Crockett inspired the phrases “kick the bucket” and “bark up the wrong tree.”

Ostler provides the background on not only how different grammar texts and dictionaries came about, but also how popular media reacted to them at the time. For example, The New York Times, Toronto Globe & Mail and The New Yorker were apoplectic in 1961 when Webster’s Third International Dictionary took what they saw as a permissive view on “ain’t.”

Throughout the book, Ostler’s writing is clear, concise and engaging. She connects the threads of the story of America’s English with grace and authority. Even Strunk and White would approve of the way “Founding Grammars” unfolds.

This review also appears in the Winter 2015 edition of Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly.

Q&A with Samantha Harrington of Driven Media

Samantha Harrington is co-founder and lead writer at Driven Media. In this interview, conducted by email, she discusses the site and her role in it.

Q. What is Driven Media about? What do you hope to achieve?

A. Oh, man. That’s a big question.

Driven is a media startup that, at its most basic level, aims to put more relatable women’s faces and voices in the media. We did a bunch of market research — surveys mostly — to figure out what problems people had with the media. We didn’t just want to start blindly producing content without first making sure there was a bigger need we were solving.

So many young women told us that they wanted to see more relatable stories and more positive content. So that’s what we try to produce.

I think at a larger level, we’re sort of creating this community of women who can learn and grow from each other’s stories. There are so many studies that show the impact of media consumption on self-worth and questions of identity. Sometimes it takes seeing or hearing the stories of others to realize, “Oh yeah, I can do this too. I can be who I want.” We’re all searching for something so we might as well do it together.

Q. Describe your role with the project.

A. So on the business side of things, I’m a co-owner of Driven Media, LLC. There are four owners: Hannah Doksansky, Hrisanthi Kroi, Josie Hollingsworth and me. This role means doing everything from dealing with taxes and legal documents to keeping track of receipts and expenses.

On the content side, I’m Driven’s lead writer. In a multimedia organization, that means writing everything from long-form features, blurbs for graphics, video intros, blog posts, email newsletters and more. I also do a bit of the graphic design for Driven — Hannah and I trade off on that — and some of the basic web stuff — posting, SEO, etc. Hrisanthi and Josie do the more serious web dev.

Q. How do you decide what stories to cover, and how does the reporting and editing work?

A. So we’re working on a series about immigration right now thanks to a partnership with Beacon, a crowdfunding platform for journalism. Within that, we’re really focused on telling human-focused stories of female immigrants living in the U.S. There are a lot of other themes that we’d like to work on in the future, but immigration has been a really incredible way to start out.

We’re five big stories in on the reporting front at this point, and it’s definitely my favorite part of the job. Hannah and I are doing all the reporting, and we start out by making contacts in whatever way we can. Because we’re traveling and reporting in places that we’re not experts in, the first few days are always all over the place. We’ve gotten into cities and completely changed from we thought the story was.

Take Maine for example. When we got to Portland, we thought the story was going to be focused around the Somali community there. But the more conversations we had, the more we realized that the story we needed to be telling in that moment was about asylum seekers in the state. So we try to not be too stubborn about what we think we’re going to do write off the bat.

So we start out by contacting organizations mostly — cultural associations, resettlement agencies, university groups, business associations, etc. — and then we ask who they know that would be willing to share personal stories about their lives and go from there.

This was something we had a really big issue with in West Virginia. We went in knowing that, according to the most recent census, there was a relatively large Filipino population in West Virginia, but once we got there, no one knew what we were talking about. We called countless organizations, and they all responded, “There are Filipino people here?” So we started scouring Facebook and searching Twitter and cold-contacting people that way. Surprisingly, almost everyone responded.

Once we get in touch with people, we try to spend quite a bit of time with them. We like to spend as much time just hanging out and talking to our subjects like friends as we do interviewing them.

Editing varies depending on what kind of media we’re working with. If we’re writing something, I’ll usually put it together and then email it to Josie or another friend for a look-over. With audio and video editing, it’s a lot of conversation between Hannah and me trying to figure out what looks best and makes the most sense for the story we’re telling.

That’s a really long and meandering answer, sorry. We’re still getting into our groove.

Q. You are a 2015 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What advice do you have for those who will graduate in 2016?

A. This is hard because everyone is so different and is looking for different things.

For better or worse, I’m a live-in-the-moment kind of girl and am way too impatient to work my way up a ladder at a big organization.

I’ve always said that all I really want from a job is just to be happy in it. I don’t want to waste any time doing anything I’m not really excited about. For others, who are more patient, maybe more traditional jobs and career paths are perfect for them.

But I guess regardless of who you are and what you’re looking for, my advice is go get it. If there’s something that you want, you have to ask for it and work for it. Don’t just wait hoping that what you want might fall in your lap. Get out there and fight for it. You’ll be amazed at what you can do.

Also, a last piece of advice, more startup than personal, is just to aim to solve a problem with everything you create.

Follow Samantha Harrington and Driven Media on Twitter.

Ben Carson needed an editor

The rise of presidential candidate Ben Carson has led to increased scrutiny of his background. That’s a normal part of politics, though at times the news media fall short on asking relevant questions.

In the past week, news organizations have done stories on Carson’s claims of overcoming a violent childhood and being offered a full scholarship at West Point. Carson wrote about those experiences in his book “Gifted Hands.”

The Wall Street Journal looked into another segment from the book. Carson wrote about an unusual request from a Yale professor to retake an exam. Here’s how the Journal described it:

carson-wsjThis is where an editor could have helped Carson when he was writing “Gifted Hands.” If I had been working with his manuscript, here are two questions I would have asked him about this incident:

  • “Wow! What a remarkable story. And it was captured on film. Can we ask the Yale Daily News if we can include that photo in the book?”
  • “I’m not following the logic of the professor’s experiment. How does it demonstrate the honesty of the students? Maybe those who left were simply annoyed about having to retake the test. Can you revise this to make that clear?”

Perhaps if an editor had asked such questions then, Carson wouldn’t be facing them now.

Q&A with Marisa DiNovis, editorial assistant at Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers

Marisa DiNovis is an editorial assistant at Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers. She is a 2015 graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill and a winner of a scholarship from the American Copy Editors Society. In this interview, conducted by email, DiNovis discusses her job, her path to book publishing and her reading recommendations.

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical day like?

A. Every day in publishing is different — it doesn’t have the same daily or weekly rhythm as a newsroom or magazine office environment. My job title is Editorial Assistant at Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, a division of Penguin Random House. Most editorial assistants in book publishing report to either the publisher of an imprint or an editor or two, and work on a range of tasks from developmental editing a manuscript to writing jacket copy and from drafting profit and loss statements to submitting copyright notices.

I report to our publisher/editorial director, and I also provide editorial support to executive and mid-level editors. Our group consists of 12 wonderful editors (who have worked on books like “The Phantom Tollbooth” and “The Golden Compass”), and I interact with our design team, managing editor, copy editor and marketing and publicity teams on a daily basis.

At Knopf BFYR, we publish books for all ages, including board books, picture books, chapter books and middle grade and young adult novels. One of the best parts of starting my career at Random House is that even entry-level editors are allowed to acquire. So in addition to backing up other editors on their books, I also interact with agents and authors as I look to build my own list at Knopf.

On a given day, I might be working on any number of projects. I always spend time reading. Sometimes it’s a manuscript on submission from a literary agent. Occasionally, it’s an interesting story I find in the slush pile (hard-copy submissions from unagented writers), and often it’s a sophomore manuscript from an existing Knopf author for which I’m supporting the editor.

I write a fair amount each day as well, which might take the form of a decline note, an editorial letter for an author whose manuscript we’ve bought or suggestions for a submission that isn’t quite ready but I’d be willing to evaluate again after revision.

As an assistant, I spend part of my work day on a few administrative tasks, like taking my boss’s messages, scheduling conference rooms and ordering in books from our warehouse — but unless you work as an administrative assistant, these tasks do not monopolize your time. You might also find me structure-tagging a manuscript with notes for design and production, attending a meeting to brainstorm potential illustrators for a picture book manuscript or aggregating Web copy for fall 2016 books to send to our copy editor.

And every so often my day might include an author visit with R.J. Palacio or Markus Zusak!

Q. You were a journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill. How did that area of study help you move into your career, and what did you have to learn on your own?

A. That’s correct. I was an editing and graphic design student within the journalism major, and I also majored in English. The marriage of those two areas of study provided me with an excellent framework for my field.

In journalism, the departmental focus on practical skills and professional development was invaluable. It’s difficult to teach networking, but the journalism school helped me navigate where to begin.

On the editing and design track, and specifically in my editing classes, I learned how editing and design teams interact and work together—an insight that has been very helpful every day I’ve interned and worked in publishing. I also use my copy-editing skills on a daily basis. Whether I’m querying an author, doing a cold proofread with a manuscript or preparing a document for the production team, I’m thinking about the principles of copy editing.

The English major taught me how to speak eloquently about literature. Without that, I couldn’t perform successfully in my job. I usually read anywhere from five to a dozen manuscripts and books in a given week. I would argue that studying English is just about the best training there is for the reading marathon that is a publishing career.

On my own, I needed to learn what hiring managers in publishing look for in an entry-level applicant. Fortunately, there are a lot of resources out there — trade publications like Publishers Weekly and Poets & Writers magazine as well as the Young to Publishing Group, and, of course, industry professionals. Book publishing is relatively small, so it was important to learn who’s who. LinkedIn and Twitter helped with that, as most publisher websites don’t list personnel.

Given the size of the industry, I learned networking is vital to getting a job. In my first informational interview, I was told that editorial jobs receive more applications than jobs for any other department in publishing, thus making them the most competitive. It was essential to develop a sense of the different houses, their respective mission statements and their successful books, in order to align myself with the divisions that matched my goals.

But perhaps the most important thing that school didn’t teach me was my personal literary tastes. As an aspiring editor, one aspect hiring managers look for in a candidate is someone who knows what he or she likes — they want an assistant equipped to make informed observations and confident decisions when weighing the strengths and weaknesses of a submission.

Q. Book editing sounds like a good gig. What advice do you have for students pursuing internships and jobs in this field?

A. I am so obviously biased, but every day working in books — especially books for young readers —is incredible. I can’t think of a single person I work with who wouldn’t tell you they are in their dream job.

My best piece of advice is this: intern, intern, intern. I say it three times for a reason. Try to do at least a few internships during college. Full disclosure: I can’t count on my hands the number of in-office and remote internships, freelance jobs and related on-campus publications I worked at in order to land my job.

At UNC, students are very lucky in that the Triangle area is a book publishing microcosm—you have Oxford University Press, UNC Press, Duke University Press, Algonquin Books, Light Messages Publishing, Technical Information Publishing Services, Lulu and others. Take advantage of the proximity during the school year. I know I did, and the connections I made there are a part of what helped me get my job.

I mentioned this earlier, but learn the industry. Publishing is almost entirely based in New York, which can present financial obstacles for summer internships. Remember that university career services often offer grants for students doing unpaid summer internships. Many of the larger houses pay a modest rate for summer interns, which is helpful, but these internships are highly competitive. Don’t forget about the smaller companies that can help you get your foot in the door—oftentimes it’s at the smaller houses or agencies (or even a book-related start-up company) where you get more hands-on experience.

Informational interviews are also key. Find the editors, publicists or marketing assistants who do jobs you one day hope to have. If it’s a high-level employee, try to find his or her assistant. Then reach out to that person. Ask for a short phone interview, question-and-answer by email or an in-person meeting if you’re visiting New York. One of the best pieces of advice I was given was to find people who had been in the industry for five years or less, and ask them how they got their job and what prepared them for it.

If you’re excited about books, show it. On social media, in person. It’s easy to be cynical about the economic climate in the publishing and news industries. It’s less easy to show that you’re invested and eager to learn regardless. When I interviewed for this job, my now-coworker told me he thought I was more passionate about children’s books than he is, and I really do believe that was taken into consideration when the hiring decision was made.

Strive to be overqualified — there’s really no such thing.

Q. Editing is fun. So is reading. What book(s) are you reading now, and what recommendations do you have?

A. I bet you thought this would be a short concluding answer! Well, I’m reading a number of books and manuscripts across a many different formats.

I’m just finishing up a submission that is a circus-freakshow retelling of “Hamlet.” I am also digging into a modern counterpart to “The Little Prince,” which I found in the slush pile. I’m also re-reading “His Dark Materials” by Philip Pullman for a large-scale project to brainstorm new cover designs for future editions.

For my book club, I’m reading an advanced reader’s copy of “Julia Vanishes,” the first installment of a debut fantasy trilogy by Catherine Egan. But the reading project I’m most excited about is a first draft manuscript by a bestselling Knopf author — unfortunately, I can’t say more about this as it isn’t released for public knowledge yet. And last, I always try to be reading one non-work-related book for fun, and right now that’s “Full Cicada Moon” by Marilyn Hilton, a middle grade novel in verse.

For sheer thrill and excitement, the book I can’t stop recommending this season, for readers of any age, is “Illuminae” by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. Think “The Hunger Games” meets “Star Wars,” told through a dossier of uncovered files with a healthy dose of a self-destructing artificial intelligence. I haven’t had as much fun reading a book as I did with this in years.

In a lot of ways, I’m as much interested in design as I am in literature, so I love reading picture books and graphic novels. Neil Gaiman recently published an illustrated version of his YA short story “The Sleeper and the Spindle” — it’s an enchanting read made even more interesting by format. “Honor Girl” by Maggie Thrash and “Nimona” by Noelle Stevenson were my two favorite graphic novels of the year, an LGBTQ-inclusive YA memoir and a middle grade fantasy respectively.

And then there’s my self-proclaimed soapbox book, “Anna and the Swallow Man” by Gavriel Savit, a debut that comes out at the end of January. This is a World War II novel with magical realism perfect for readers who loved “The Book Thief” — and the most captivating and merit-worthy piece of literature I’ve read in 2015.

A revised course on alternative story forms

In 2008, I worked with Poynter’s NewsU to create a free course on alternative story forms. Now, we’ve worked together again, this time on a new version of that course. Thanks to Vicki Krueger and Vanessa Goodrum at NewsU for making that possible.

A lot has changed since 2008:

  • Digital news organizations have increased their use of alt story forms such as lists, games and FAQs. Even The New York Times is getting in on the act.
  • People are using tablets such as the iPad to read online, and the old course’s Flash-based presentation didn’t work in that setting.
  • Some of the examples of alternative story forms in the course became stale in design and content.

The revised course has new examples and updated exercises. It has a “digital first” focus.

The course’s goal is the same — to select and create the story form that best matches the news and information you want to convey to your readers. As before, the course is free and self-directed. I hope that you find it useful.