The Joy of Syntax

A simple guide to all the grammar you know you should know

June Casagrande (Ten Speed Press, 2018), 272pp, £11.62 (paperback)
ISBN 978 0 39 958106 9

Reviewed by Jenny Warren

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I sought out this book because I think of myself as an intuitive editor. I know when a sentence construction is weak and how to improve it, but I can’t always explain my changes in grammatical terms.

The title caught my eye – how could it not! And it’s a short book, endorsed by Mary Norris whose book Between You and Me: Confessions of a comma queen I loved, so it seemed the perfect choice. It did languish on my shelves for a few months, but when lockdown struck and the weather improved, I found a few minutes in the sun every day to tackle it.

June Casagrande is a journalist and the author of several books on grammar, and I’m tempted by another book of hers, Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies. I think it’s safe to assume we are not in the company of a prescriptivist.

First things first. If you already have a good grasp of grammar, defined here as syntax and usage, then you don’t need this book. But if, like me, you really want to know what a dummy operator* is then read on.

June Casagrande has a light, informal style that made it easy to read from cover to cover. But it was important to me to be able to use this for reference, so the logical layout, contents and index are big plus points.

Part one is about syntax – sentence mechanics – something I was never taught at school. The introduction ‘So Who’s in Charge Here?’ briefly discusses sticklers and nitpickers and settles on a definition of grammar as ‘at its heart a set of standards based on common practice’, after which is a series of chapters on phrases, clauses and parts of speech. Each chapter defines the terms, provides straightforward examples and offers asides about idiomatic use and flexibility which allows for ‘correctness’ to vary according to context.

Part two focuses on usage and propriety. The author makes the point that there is no such thing as ‘proper English’, but we all face situations where we need to be aware of other people’s expectations about what is ‘proper’ and then choose to conform to those standards – or not. There follows a series of chapters that cover danglers, less and fewer, subject–verb agreement, and sentence fragments, among other things. Oh, and of course the Oxford comma gets a look-in. (‘Be consistent and follow your style guide’ – sound advice!)

Chapter 29 is a usage guide. It has an alphabetical list of commonly confused or misused words like adverse/averse and allude/elude. When I read this chapter, it occurred to me that this would be a great resource for some of the fiction writers I work with.

So overall, this is a practical, accessible and engaging book. Recommended for those of us who need to brush up our grammar or check out some terminology to back up an editing decision.

‘Do’ is a dummy operator. It’s inserted to allow you to form a question or add negation. For example, ‘You work’ can’t be inverted to form a question, so you add ‘do’. ‘Do you work?’

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