Lisa McLendon is the coordinator of the Bremner Editing Center at the University of Kansas. She is the author of “The Perfect English Grammar Workbook: Simple Rules and Quizzes to Master Today’s English.” In this interview, conducted by email, McLendon discusses the book and her views on “grammar police” and the singular they.
Q. What prompted you to write this workbook, and how did it come together?
A. This was a great example of the power of networking: Someone I’m connected with on Twitter and through the American Copy Editors Society is a freelance copy editor for publisher Callisto Media and edited Grant Barrett’s “Perfect English Grammar.” When Callisto decided to do a workbook, too, she couldn’t take it on so she recommended me.
The publisher uses data to figure out what audiences are looking for and what needs are unmet, so the turnaround was quick. I wrote the book in about six weeks. Then it went through two rounds of editing, design, marketing and then release.
Q. You’re an editor. As an author, how did it feel to be edited?
A. EVERYONE needs an editor, and that includes editors who are writing. It gave me a lot of confidence in the publisher that editing was still an important part of the process.
I was pleased to have a thorough content edit and then a thorough copy edit on top of that. Both editors were excellent, and the process was relatively painless. But still, there were a couple of places where I thought, “yikes, did I write that?” That’s why we all need editors!
Q. What are some areas of grammar that cause people headaches?
A. Agreement, both subject-verb and pronoun-antecedent. Subjunctives. Subject and object pronoun use. Punctuation, apostrophes in particular.
Q. In the book, you write that you prefer “grammar cheerleader” over “grammar cop.” What do you make of debates over grammar on social media and elsewhere?
I’m glad people are talking about language. Healthy debate is good, and anytime people (myself included) can learn more about language and how it works, it’s a good thing. Anytime people think about making writing more clear and accurate, it’s a good thing.
Because grammar rules (and “rules”) are often used by those “in the know” as a cudgel to shame people or shut out voices, a lot of people have a negative perception of grammar. That’s why it needs a cheerleader instead of a cop.
But like it or not, we DO get judged by our language, especially online, where the vast majority of communication is written, and often that judgment will override any information someone is trying to convey or point someone is trying to make. Understanding grammar can help someone gain credibility and write authoritatively.
Q. Let’s wrap up with two hot-button topics: How do you feel about the Oxford comma? The singular they?
A. Oxford comma: Honestly, I wish people would quit arguing about this. There are so many more important issues in language. Follow the designated style guide and be done with it. (Blog post: https://madamgrammar.com/2013/07/31/dont-sweat-it-serial-comma/)
Singular they: We have been using “they” for centuries to refer to unspecified or unknown people, and English has not crumbled into dust as a result. (In fact, this exact grammatical phenomenon has occurred before, when plural “you” expanded into the singular, displacing “thou” and “thee.”) It’s here to stay, and it’s rapidly gaining acceptance in mainstream publications. (Blog post: https://madamgrammar.com/2015/08/12/singularthey/)