Interview with Lisa McLendon

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Grammarist is pleased to introduce Lisa McLendon, aka “Madam Grammar.”

Please introduce yourself and provide some background information.

I’m Lisa McLendon and I teach editing and writing in the journalism school at the University of Kansas. Before this job, I was a newspaper copy editor for 12 years, and before that, I completed a Ph.D. in Slavic linguistics.

What inspired you to starting writing your blog, “Madam Grammar?”

I wanted to demystify grammar and usage, bust a few language myths and help people understand how language – writing in particular – works. As a linguist, I know that language is whatever people use, but as an editor, I know that standards are important in the professional sphere (whether we like it or not). I try to bridge these two parts of my career with the blog.

How has blogging changed language? How we use language?

You hear a lot of people complain that the Internet is ruining language. But I think the opposite is happening: Because so much of what’s online is solely written, writing – good, clear, correct writing – is more valuable than ever. The ability to link is fantastic – writers can cite their sources easily and point readers to more tangential information without interrupting the flow as footnotes or in-text citations can.
Another change is in format: People have become more accustomed to skimming/scanning as they read online, so it’s more common for blogs and other online writings to have “signposts” like sub-headlines, bullet points or numbered lists.

You are a teacher, writer, editor and linguist. You have dedicated your life, interests, and career on language. What is it about language that you find so interesting?

I’ve always loved words: how they look, how they sound, how they work. Learning foreign languages helped me understand the parts and structures of language and gain a real appreciation for the complexities – and the beauty – of any language. I love how word roots grow and spread; I love how new words get formed and how old ones drop away; I love all the ways humans have thought of to play with language.

What do you think is your unique contribution to the English language?

I don’t like the idea of “grammar Nazis” – I’m a “grammar cheerleader.” I try to get people excited about grammar. When you look at grammar, it isn’t dull at all; it’s fascinating. If I’m excited about grammar and language, I hope some of that excitement is contagious.

What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment in the world of language/grammar?

I help hundreds of students every year learn how to write more clearly and more accurately,
and to see that good writing is not only ideal but doable and learnable.

Why should anyone be more interested in linguistics/grammar?

We all use language. If you know a little bit about linguistics and grammar, you are a more savvy media consumer, you can spot hedging or weaknesses in arguments, and you are aware of how people can mislead through language. On the more positive side, you understand why a well-written sentence works, how to find “just the right word,” and how English got to be the glorious muddle it is today.

If you could change the way people speak or write what would you suggest? Why does it matter?

I would suggest that people use less jargon and fewer buzzwords, which matters because clearer is always better. No one ever complains that something is “too clear.”

What are the three most critical errors made most often?

I’ll restrict these points to professional writing, because that’s what I work with.
1. In terms of annoyance, misused apostrophes. They can make an otherwise solid, professional piece of writing look amateurish and sloppy. It’s a small thing and really not crucial in most cases for clarity, but correct apostrophe usage is a hallmark of professional writing.
2. In terms of clarity, unclear pronoun usage. If a reader runs across an “it” or “that” in a sentence and has to stop and puzzle out what its antecedent is, the sentence doesn’t work and the reader may get so distracted that they just quit altogether. (Yes, I used “they” as a singular there. It’s time for us to accept that we need an epicene pronoun and “they,” which most of us are already using in speech, is it.)
3. In terms of readability, wordiness and redundance. Technically, these aren’t “errors,” but they can often hinder readers far more than a typo or missing comma would. The whole point of writing (professionally, at least) is to inform, and if readers can’t figure out where something is going or what the point is, then they quit reading – and all the effort put into the piece is for naught.

Anything else?

Can we just let “whom” go already?

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