My Grammar and I (or should that be ‘Me’?): Old-school ways to sharpen your English

by Caroline Taggart and J A Wines (London: Michael O'Mara Books, 2008): 192pp, £9.98 (hbk), ISBN 978 1 84317 310 6.

Reviewed by Jeff Probst

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This is a light-hearted, quick-reference approach to many grammar basics, interweaving editorial jokes and relevant historical points with the subject (or object) at hand. There is no index, so for me it was a matter of enjoyably reading through the book and bookmarking.

Most of us will be familiar with most of the basics covered, but I did find worthwhile the authors' clear explanations of while vs although, restrictive vs non-restrictive clauses (i.e. which vs that), their summary of tenses (they settle on 14, rather than 12 or 30), and their go at who vs whom – with a Calvin Trillin quote thrown in: 'As far as I'm concerned, whom is a word that was invented to make everyone sound like a butler.'

Two quibbles

I found no 'mistakes' in the book but do have two quibbles:

  • In 'One die, two dice (or, Singular and plural)', they assert: 'When a name ends in an s with a hard z sound, we don't add any ending to form the plural' – e.g. 'We have the Richards coming to lunch.' I would say 'Richardses' is correct (though, as The Chicago Manual of Style suggests, in such instances consider rewording).
  • In 'Something to shout about (or, Exclamation marks)', the authors aver that 'An exclamation mark ends a sentence in place of a full stop and should be followed by a capital letter.' What about: 'John's cry: "Watch out!" shocked us'?

Enlightening asides

Overall I heartily recommend the book, not least for its enlightening asides.

In 'Say What? (or, Parts of speech)' – which includes sections such as 'Dangly bits (or, Misplaced modifiers)' – the authors explain in one of their 'Smart Alec' boxes that English, unlike, for example, French and German, doesn't have both informal and formal words for you, having eschewed thou long ago. But thou was, in fact, the more informal of the two.

In 'Take a deep breath (or, Commas)', the authors use the quote 'A woman without her man is nothing' to illustrate a point. Here, they say, punctuating males might add commas after woman and man, while females might put a colon after woman and a comma after her.

Finally, in 'Pleonasm, prolixity and tautology (or, Wordiness)', a linguistics professor tells his class that a double negative forms a positive but a double positive never forms a negative, to which a student replies, 'Yeah, right.'

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