March 2012 Book(s) of the Month: Grammar Matters & How to Write a Sentence

Boy am I glad I relaxed the rule on fiction only this year, because it gives me the chance to introduce Grammar Matters to you. This little book (less than 100 pages long and pygmy-sized) may change your life if you’re a card-carrying member of the grammar police. Because in Grammar Matters, Jila Ghomeshi (yes, for the Canadians, she IS the sister of Jian Ghomeshi) argues that prescriptivism (the habit of correcting us when we make grammatical ‘mistakes’) arises from social prejudice. It’s a subversive theory, if not a particularly creative one, but even if you’re firmly entrenched in the prescriptive camp, I’d recommend you read this book. I confess that I cringe inside every time a TV presenter says literally when a) they don’t need to, or b) they mean figuratively, but I’m prepared to accept my grammatical peeves are as much a product of my background and upbringing as they are adherence to some mythical standard of proper grammar. Truth be told, grammarians backed into the laws of grammar by observing how language is actually used. Pick this book up and read it. It will take you about two hours, but every time somebody berates you for a subsequent grammatical error you’ll be able to pull it out of your back pocket and tap them sharply on the head with it.

It’s published by ARP, a small Winnipeg-based press. I bought my copy (for full price of course, because that’s the deal) at Type Books.

I’m really relaxing the rules this month, because I’m introducing a second book: How to Write a Sentence (and how to read one) by Stanley Fish. This may seem an odd companion to my other book pick this month, because it sounds as if it’s going to be a straight-laced, prescriptive book on the rights and the wrongs of sentence construction. It’s not. It’s merely a thorough-going description of the writer’s toolkit.

Mr Fish is a professor of law at Florida International University. He says he wrote this book because he’s become, over the last few years, increasingly dismayed at freshmen’s inability to string words into a coherent sentence. So he wanted, by the use of case studies and examples, to demonstrate not only how it’s done, but all the sentence construction tools good writers use. We have choices, he says, and our writing will improve when we familiarize ourselves with them and start to put them to use in our own craft. I’m always open to improving my craft, which is why I picked the book up. I’ll admit, I didn’t learn anything new, but Mr. Fish did make me think more critically about my own choices. The book is published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins (a subsidiary of NewsCorp). I bought my copy at Nicholas Hoare.

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