Q&A with Lisa McLendon, author ‘The Perfect English Grammar Workbook’

grammarworkbook

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/)

Celebration days

This week brings us two days worth celebrating. Here they are:

  • First Amendment Day is Tuesday, Sept. 23, at UNC-Chapel Hill. Events will include a reading of banned books, a discussion of access to public records and a trivia contest. If you can’t be there, you can follow the fun on Twitter via the hashtag #UNCfree.
  • National Punctuation Day is Wednesday, Sept. 24, throughout the United States. I’ll mark the moment with periods, commas and (yes) semicolons.

I hope that you will join me in celebrating our freedoms and our language.

Colbert and commas

A friend posted this clip from “The Colbert Report” on Facebook the other day. In it, the titular host offers a fierce defense of the Oxford comma.

That’s the comma that sometimes shows up in lists of three or more items. It’s also known as the serial comma.

The topic of punctuation came up on the Comedy Central show because Colbert was interviewing the band Vampire Weekend. One of the band’s songs is called “Oxford Comma.”

As a copy editor with a journalistic education and background, I don’t use the Oxford comma. To me, the American flag is red, white and blue.

But if I were to take a job that used, say, the Chicago Manual of Style, I would use the serial comma. Then, the American flag would be red, white, and blue.

The comments on my friend’s Facebook posting included some people arguing that the Oxford comma is a matter of right or wrong. Others never knew there was a debate.

In my editing course, I tell my students that they may need to use the serial comma in their term papers in English classes, but not in their journalism assignments.

I’d say it’s a matter of style, similar to whether names of blogs should be italicized. Just pick a style and use it, along with common sense.

Colbert, by the way, cites “The Elements of Style” to make his case for this comma. I wonder if he’s aware of the criticism that book has taken in recent years.

A perfect parody

Editors and other journalists on Twitter have a new favorite to follow: FakeAPStylebook. It’s a dead-on spoof of The Associated Press Stylebook.

As The Onion does for news stories, FakeAPStylebook works so well because it mimics the tone and structure of its target. Here are a few examples of the style rulings from the fake stylebook:

  • Always capitalize ‘Bible.’ You don’t want to get letters from those people.
  • A surreal comma denotes a list of absurd items: fish mustache, one-legged spoon, glass violin.
  • The correct spelling is ‘Mr. T.’ People who type out ‘Mister’ are fools to be pitied.

Enjoy more on the Twitter page of FakeAPStylebook.

A few thoughts on National Punctuation Day

On the occasion of National Punctuation Day, I offer a few tips on the use of this part of our language:

  • Commas have many uses, but they are especially handy in making sure compound sentences don’t run on and on.
  • I’m fine with semicolons; they can be useful on occasion.
  • Ellipses can … wonder what … left out. Use … sparingly.
  • You get one exclamation mark per year. Use it wisely!
  • The period is powerful. The end.

Cover letters need editing

A recent Q&A on cover letters stayed near the top of the “most popular” list at the New York Times site for nearly a week. It’s certainly a timely article, with many people (including journalists) on the job market. And yes, those letters still matter in the age of the e-mailed résumé.

The last question in the Q&A is an important one. It’s about common mistakes in cover letters. Here’s part of the answer:

A cover letter with typos, misspellings and poor sentence structure may take you out of the running for a job. If you cannot afford to pay someone to review your cover letter and résumé, enlist a friend or a family member with good language skills to do it instead.

It’s true. Those things can take you out of the running for a job. I’ve seen that happen in newsrooms and in academia. If you are on the job market or want to go to graduate school, make sure those letters are clear and clean.