Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Book Review: 'My Grammar and I'

My Grammar and I
(or should that be 'Me'?)

Caroline Taggart and J. A. Wines
Michael O´Mara Books 2008
ISBN 9781843173106

From the blurb: "Can you tell when a sentence contains more clichés than you've had hot dinners, or if it's tautological and pointlessly repetitive? Is a preposition necessarily a bad thing to end a sentence with? Are you able to immediately spot a split infinitive? Or understand how, being accidentally misplaced, you can wreak nonsensical havoc with your modifiers?"
If I only had a penny... sorry, I mean if I had only a penny... no, no, that's not it... ah! if only I had a penny for every book on the English language that has a schoolboyish giggle at the phrase ´dangling modifier´ I´d probably be a quid or two the richer by now.
'[It is] impossible at the present juncture to teach English grammar in the schools for the simple reason that no one knows exactly what it is.'
   ~ Government Report, 1921
My Grammar and I, a delightful recent discovery of mine, from the marvellous Michael O´Mara Books, is no exception (they refer to them in their chapter heading as 'Dangly bits') but in this case they are justified. The whole book takes a very pleasant tongue- (or should that be dangly bit?) in-cheek look at one of our most precious and least understood national institutions: the English grammar system (if, indeed, there actually is one - personally, I'm sceptical).

So, what a pleasure it is to hold this little volume in my hands. From the textured cover to the soft grain of the pages; from the well-chosen typeface to the inner front cover's 'A gift for... from...' nameplate; from the lovely musty aroma as you hold it to your nose (you do sniff your books, don't you?) to the gentle humour of the entries... everything is designed to offer you some enjoyably intellectual fodder from yesteryear with a modern twist: nostalgia.

Rules of yore rub avec-seriffed shoulders with decidedly up-to-date irreverence and cheeky asides. Right up our street, this is. (Try saying 'rules of yore rub shoulders' fast a few times, by the way, and I'll send my personal copy of the current title straight off to anyone who can prove they didn't get their tongues in a twist! See below, by the way, for an exclusive photo of My Gramar and I and Me, - totally grammatically correct, I assure you...)

What the authors have succeeded in doing is interweaving amusing quotes and examples with the actual guts of the book, which is English grammar and how to do it. I imagine My Grammar and I is the grammar book most grammarians of the not too dusty variety would secretly like to have written all along. I know it's certainly the sort I enjoy reading most.

The above quote from a government report of 1921 opens the introduction and sets the tone of the book. The snappy four page history of English grammar is quickly followed by a classic list of Grammar Rules (to avoid), including the following:
  1. Verbs has to agree with their subjects.
  2. Remember to never split an infinitive.
  3. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are (usually) unnecessary.
And seven others. I especially likes number 3 because to constantly include comments in brackets (as I do, however irrelevant) is one of my recognisable (if possibly irritating) trademarks.
Various devices keep the pages turning at a flurrying pace. Funny, punny or simply intriguing section headings guarantee a zappy intro to each new language point:
  • Say what? (or, Parts of Speech)
  • What a to-do (or, Verbs)
  • Thou and thee (or, Pronouns)
  • Kind of funny-looking (or, Adjectives)
  • Do I get time off for good behaviour? (or, Sentences)
  • A big no-no (or, Double negatives)
And, of course, the aforementioned Dangly bits (or, Misplaced modifiers).

Little boxes or highlighted sections scattered throughout the book variously contain apposite quotes,
"The English speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; (5) those who know and distinguish... Those who neither know nor care are the vast majority, and are a happy folk, to be envied by most of the minority classes."
   ~ H. W. Fowler, Modern English Usage, 1926
funny one-liners,
"We spent most of our time sitting on the back porch watching the cows playing scrabble and reading."
   ~ From 'So where does a comma go?'
and assorted oddities and words of wisdom:
Smart Alec: Since pronoun is a noun, why isn't proverb a verb?
Swot's Corner: Capital letters are sometimes referred to as 'upper case'. This is because manual typesetters kept these letters in the upper drawers of a desk - the upper type case. More frequently used letters were stored on a lower shelf, thus 'lower case' letters.
See Me After Class: Each comparison needs only one comparative: more better is bad, more betterer is even worser.
As you can see from these choice tidbits, the funny, often absurd side of English is never far from the fore, as well as the deliciously overriding temptation to play with our words. But let's make no mistake about it: the topic is grammar, and more than almost any other book I've seen recently, My Grammar and I really does help us understand the basics and more in a thoroughly accessible way.

It's true that most of the points are introduced briefly in a paragraph or so, followed immediately by plenty of examples in the place of wordy explanations, but hey! I know some people who think that's the best way to learn! And how many lay readers do you know who are ready to sit through a boring grammar lecture anyway? So I reckon Ms Taggart and the interestingly named J. A. Wines (does she really?) have got it about right. For this lay 'Me'-er (or should that be 'I') anyway.

And lest Ms Wines be offended, that name quip comes from someone who has suffered their fair share of 'hilarious' name-related jokes from an early age. Imagine having 'Will' as your last name growing up at a typical English school and all the jollity that can provoke...

Hotch Potch English: "The SNAIL" ~ Book Review: 'My Grammar and I'
Created & written by Sab Will
Copyright 2010 Sab Will / Hotch Potch English
More creative Sab: Paris Set Me Free
Visit Hotch Potch English ~ The Unique English Teaching Website

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