Comma Sense: Your guide to grammar victory

Ellen Sue Feld (Mango, 2022), 512pp, £16.95 (pbk)
ISBN 978 1 64250 725 6

Reviewed by Alison Shakspeare

Buy this book

I have to admit to a fear of being quizzed on grammar terms. I could tell you if a phrase was wrong (mostly) and how to put it right (generally), but I’d hesitate to label it (especially since there are so many alternatives, or alternates if you are in US mode). After reading Comma Sense from cover to cover, and doing all the tests and quizzes, my brain still refuses to absorb the labels, but at least I know where to go for a quick refresher.

This book is firmly entrenched in the US in terms of spelling and examples, but the basic rules of English grammar are pretty global so, as far as parts of speech, tense agreement and other important bits of writing knowledge go, that’s not a barrier to purchasing this book if you are based elsewhere. But you’ll have to teach yourself about global variations if you aren’t working in a US market.

The reviews that are scattered across the front and back all use words I made a note of for reviewing purposes, chief among them being linked to food. This is because Ellen Feld believes that ‘food and grammar have a lot in common!’. So we begin the journey hand in hand with baking pro Aunt Felicity and are cajoled along in a friendly, enthusiastic and foodie tone, right up to the final ‘comprehensive’ quiz. Humorous chapter titles hint at their content – ‘Which Witch Is Which?’ on mixed-up words, ‘Let’s Agree to Agree’ on agreement and ‘Say What You Mean’ on clarity and logic. Although it would be helpful to finding your way around if the chapter numbers appeared in the footers.

Sound grammar lessons are peppered with other advice:

  • on the book – ‘You may have noticed that each chapter is divided into several short lessons. I encourage you to take your time and take a break often. There’s a lot to learn. Slow and steady is the way to go.’
  • on the art of writing – ‘Good grammar doesn’t make good writing, but good writing demands good grammar.’
  • on editing – ‘Editing is the writer’s sponge’, as in, cleaning up after the writing (following on from a restaurant analogy)
  • on sound, commonsense tips, such as hearing mistakes by reading aloud and writing by hand to reinforce learning.

The lessons are brief and clear with pertinent and interesting examples, so you don't feel befuddled by too much detail or terminology. But that very brevity is what marks this as very much a starter or refresher book. Any true beginner would need many more examples to make this a useful set of lessons, but there is a good resources section that takes you on to further stages.

It has an index, but a basic one, in line with the nature of the book. You can find terms but not words, for instance, ‘tense’ but not ‘first person’; ‘pronouns’ but not ‘who/whom’. Did I spot typos? Only three I made a note of, so that’s not bad!

The book’s stepped approach and occasional repetition help you absorb the information. Feld acknowledges that there are often alternatives and emphasises the need for consistency. She champions knowing the rules so that you can break them appropriately, including some examples of why you would do it for different readers. The blurb is right: this encouraging book would refresh the grammar skills of a variety of time-strapped word wranglers, from creative writers, to businesspeople, to editors.

Reviews of other literary criticism and books on language All book reviews