I’m an author and a blogger, but in my previous life I was a newspaper journalist. At the Wall Street Journal in the early 1980s, I was an editor on the national desk and also wrote the Page 1 “Worldwide” column. Later I moved to the New York Times, where I spent many years as a staff editor on the New York Times Book Review. In addition to editing literary criticism, I also wrote occasional book reviews and for several years wrote the weekly column on paperback books.
While I was still at the Times, in 1994, an editor at Putnam’s asked me to write a light-hearted book on grammar. The result was Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English (1996). It became a national bestseller and landed me a guest spot on “Oprah!”
When my editor asked me to write a second book, I decided to become a full-time writer. In 1997 I left the Times and moved to Connecticut with my husband, Stewart Kellerman, a writer, editor, and former Vietnam War correspondent I’d met at the paper. Four more books followed: Words Fail Me, a book about writing; Woe Is I Jr., a grammar for children; and two written jointly with Stewart: You Send Me, about writing online, and Origins of the Specious, about language myths and misconceptions.
In the late 1990s I began appearing monthly on New York public radio, where I’m the in-house “language maven” on WNYC’s “Leonard Lopate Show.” In the last year, I’ve begun appearing every other month, answering call-in questions from listeners.
Stewart and I established a website, Grammarphobia.com, in the summer of 2006 and began writing a daily blog to answer readers’ questions about language. For almost eight years, we wrote the blog every day, 365 days a year. We now write it three days a week—Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. We answer questions about everything you can imagine having to do with words: etymology, history, grammar, spelling, usage, slang—you name it.
You are a book writer and a blog writer—do you prefer one over the other? How is the process similar? Different?
The research is the same; it’s just as rigorous and the sourcing is just as authoritative. Whether we’re answering blog questions or writing a book, we use the best sources we can find— academic journals; books and papers by linguists, lexicographers, and etymologists; the Oxford English Dictionary; standard dictionaries and reference books, and original source materials.
I prefer blogging, and for all the wrong reasons! A book takes us two years (or more) to write, and the end can seem very far away. We’re perfectionists, and sometimes it takes us a day to write a single paragraph that we’re satisfied with. While we’re writing a book, the two of us interact only with one another, our editor, and whatever librarians or other sources we’re using. We cut back on our social life, don’t take trips, don’t go to movies, don’t do recreational reading—only research—and we have to be very focused and disciplined. It’s rewarding to be finished with a book, but getting there can be stressful.
A blog post, on the other hand, is written to a real human being, someone with a question who’s taken the time to seek us out and write to us. So there’s some personal interaction. The research for each post is usually done in a day or two (though some questions can take much longer). Our routine is to send the reader an answer by email, then run the Q&A as a blog post later. We usually get an email back right away, and it’s almost always friendly and appreciative. Instant gratification for us! And we don’t have to follow an outline or have a grand, overarching scheme; we simply respond to the questions waiting in our in-basket! One of us writes the original email reply and the other edits it for the blog (this might mean additional research). So we always have two sets of eyes on what we publish.
The biggest difference between writing books and writing the blog is financial—we don’t get paid for blogging, and we don’t accept advertising.
What is it about Grammarphobia that has made it such a successful blog?
Well, for us there’s no such thing as a silly question. If a reader is curious enough to ask, for example, why his wife puts on a “pair” of panties but not a “pair” of bras, we’ll try to find him an answer! And we’ll treat it as seriously as we would a question about the demise of the subjunctive mood.
The Grammarphobia Blog is also very welcoming, I think. We don’t scold, and we don’t take ourselves—or our subject—too seriously.
Your last few decades have been spent on language in one form or another—journalist, editor, book and blog writer. What is so interesting about language/grammar to you that you’ve decided to dedicate your life and career to it?
My first job out of grad school was reporting for a medium-sized daily newspaper in Iowa. But it wasn’t language that drew me to news writing. It was curiosity. I liked going out and asking questions, gathering facts, asking more questions, sorting it all out and coming up with a story that made sense and was as close to the truth as I could get. This was the 1970s, and the Watergate scandal had given journalism a certain cachet.
The reality wasn’t so glamorous. After four or five years of covering politics, crime, education, government, and local industry, disenchantment set in. Dealing with bureaucrats day after day was disillusioning, as well as (I have to admit it) boring. So I wormed my way into an editing job. I was much happier helping to plan what should be covered and by whom, and I got a buzz out of making the stories sharper and clearer. Language is powerful!
Years of editing taught me that even the most talented reporters and writers, from modest small-city dailies to the greatest papers in the country, made the same mistakes. Certain grammatical concepts simply eluded them. These problems, and my methods of dealing with them, later became the foundation for Woe Is I.
In what ways, since you first started your career until today, do you think language and how we use it has changed?
This is a huge question. When I started out, print was everything. Big cities all had mighty newspapers—some had several—that made money hand over fist. Book publishers were empires unto themselves and paid lavish advances. All that has changed. Newspapers are struggling, and many have vanished. Online news organizations are struggling too, because they haven’t yet learned how to make the new technology profitable. Publishing imprints and bookstores have disappeared. So the way we read and what we read have been transformed.
Many people point to all this and say that English is slowly circling the drain. It’s been corrupted, defiled, trashed, polluted. Something called “technology”—the Internet, email, texting, and so on—has ruined the English language.
This is nonsense. People said the same thing nearly 200 years ago about the telegraph. They said it again when the postcard (the postcard!) arrived in Edwardian England. They said it again when the telephone, and later television, came along. But the dire predictions never came to pass. Why? Because people’s awareness of language and their ability to use it are enhanced, not degraded, by advances in the means of communication.
Yes, English changes, but it always has. It changes not because of new inventions, but because it’s always being reinvigorated by the people who use it. This is why I am not a prescriptivist. From the beginning, Stewart and I have emphasized on our blog that English is a living thing, that it’s not what it was 1,000 years ago or 500 years ago or even 50 years ago. Through the centuries, common usage has always determined what good English is and is not. This is a strength of our language, not a weakness.
Keep in mind that the changes people find jarring are usually matters of usage, not grammar. They don’t recognize that it’s natural for usage to evolve, for words to take on new meanings, functions, spellings, pronunciations, etc. Meanwhile the grammar, the bedrock of the language, remains stable: subject-verb agreement, pronoun case, tense structure, verb conjugations, and so on.
What do you think is your unique contribution to the English language?
When it was published, Woe Is I was unique—a grammar book that addressed thorny grammatical problems without using the technical vocabulary of grammar, the bewildering terminology that made our eyes glaze over in high school. The publisher asked me to write a humorous book, and I tried to do that—but I also insisted on using plain English, and on handling the intimidating technical terms in the glossary. At the time, this was a radical idea. Pedants accused me of “dumbing down” English grammar, but nothing could be further from the truth. Writing about a difficult concept in plain English, using clear and simple words, is extremely hard to do. There’s nothing dumb about it.
What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment in the world of language/grammar?
Writing Woe Is I. And I have to mention that while Stewart isn’t listed as a co-author, he helped write the book and was at my side every step of the way.
If you could change the way people speak or write what would you suggest and why does it matter?
I would urge them to speak more slowly and write more carefully—and to reread everything be-fore letting it go. This can make an astonishing difference!
What are the three most critical errors made most often?
I’ll give you four common errors.
(1) People begin sentences without knowing where they’re going. For example, they’ll begin with “There’s” and continue with a plural: “… several people waiting to speak to you in the lobby.” This is why I say they should slow down. Think before speaking. And writers should always go back and look again at what they’ve written.
(2) Subject and verb should agree, but often don’t. Example: “The thing he noticed first were her eyes.” (No, make it “was.” The verb agrees with the subject—“The thing he noticed”—not its complement.)
(3) Pronouns take a beating. Example: “Dad would never have spoken to Bob and I that way.” (Make it “to Bob and me.”)
(4) People mix up tenses in a sequence. Example: “If you would have warned me, I would have worn something more appropriate.” (Make it “If you had warned me ….”) Here’s another: “I’ve been playing the flute since I’m eight years old.” (Make it “since I was eight years old.”)
The best way to improve your English is to read. The more the better. Reading is an immense pleasure, which is reason enough, but it also introduces you to words, expressions, prose styles, and sentence structures you wouldn’t ordinarily encounter. Besides, you learn things!