Interview with Jonathon Owen

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Grammarist is happy to introduce Jonathon Owen, editor, layout artist, T-shirt man and writer of the very popular blog, Arrant Pedantry.

Please introduce yourself and provide some background information.

My name is Jonathon Owen, and I’m an editor, layout artist, and freelance writer. I’ve been working in editing and layout for about thirteen years, and last year I finished a master’s degree in linguistics. I blog about grammar, usage, editing, and other popular language issues. I also write a column called “Grammar on the Edge” for Copyediting newsletter, I’m a contributor to Visual Thesaurus, and several of my blog posts have been republished on Huffington Post.

What inspired you to starting writing your blog, “Arrant Pedantry”?

I love editing, but when I graduated from college, I realized that I really missed the academic side of things. I started searching for language blogs and discovered Language Log, Motivated Grammar, and a lot of other great blogs. There was this whole community of experts out there having great discussions that I had been completely unaware of. I decided to start my own blog and add to the discussion.

What is it about “Arrant Pedantry” that has made it such a successful blog?

I look at popular usage issues from the perspective of modern linguistics. Rather than just saying “This is the rule, now follow it,” I try to take a more objective approach, looking at the history of the rule and reasons why it may or may not be valid. I think language is an endlessly fascinating topic, and people want more than just to be slapped on the wrist for breaking the rules.

How has blogging changed language? How we use language?

I don’t think it’s really changed language, though I think it reflects a shift to more casual and conversational modes of discourse over the last century. The internet in general allows us to communicate in ways that weren’t possible before, and it has enabled new words, phrases, and constructions to spread faster than ever. It’s also made it a lot easier to connect with and have discussions with experts in the field, so I think blogging has helped popularize the field of linguistics.

What is so interesting about language/grammar to you?

What’s not interesting about it? As far as we know, language is a uniquely human gift—it sets us apart from literally every other living thing in the known universe. The way in which we all manage to master this mind-bogglingly complex system is astonishing. It’s a shame that so many people think studying language is boring or frustrating, because there’s so much more to it than most people are aware of—historical linguistics, phonology, typology, psycholinguistics, and on and on. There’s always something new to learn.

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

Oh, goodness. I don’t know that I’ve really made a unique contribution. I just try to shed some light on popular language issues and get people to think a little more about them.

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

Probably my post “12 Mistakes Nearly Everyone Who Writes About Grammar Mistakes Makes.” I got more page views on that post in its first day than I used to get in an entire year, and I still get quite a bit of traffic on it. I wrote it for fun, but obviously it struck a chord with a lot of people.

Why should anyone be more interested in linguistics/grammar?

Because the study of language is about so much more than memorizing a bunch of dusty old rules. There are ways to love language that don’t involve being lecturing people on their mistakes or otherwise being an insufferable pedant.

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

I would try to make people less self-conscious about the way they speak and write. I once had a friend who was afraid to talk to me because she thought I was mentally correcting everything she said. I told her that she didn’t need to worry about that because I really try not to be a grammar snob, but it’s sad that people assume that being an editor or a grammar expert means you’re a jerk. I have my pet peeves just like anyone else, but I try to keep them to myself unless I’m being paid to point them out. If you’re writing for publication, you should probably consult an editor, but I think people should be able to talk casually without worrying that they’re going to get their knuckles rapped.

What are the three most critical errors made most often?

(1) Failing to look things up. It’s so easy nowadays to hop online and research a language question, but a lot of people still don’t think to do so. (2) Assuming that all the rules have to be followed all the time. You have to know when it’s appropriate to say “To whom did you give the book?” and when it’s appropriate to “Who’d you give the book to?” (3) Trying too hard to sound correct. If you don’t really understand a rule, it’s easy to overextend it and end up hypercorrecting. If you know that “Me and Bob went to the store” is wrong, you may hypercorrect and say “Give the book to Bob or I.” I think it’s generally safer to err on the side of sounding a little casual than to aim too high and miss the mark.

Anything else? Perhaps…T-shirts?

Yes! I sell T-shirts for editors, linguistics, and other language lovers here. Take a look and maybe help me support my blogging habit.

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