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The Glamour of Grammar

Posted on Monday, August 29, 2011 at 6:24 PM

A remarkably useful guide that deserves a spot in your library.

By Peter P. Jacobi

The writer's name on the cover should be enough to convince you to buy the book: Roy Peter Clark.

The author of Writing Tools, among a dozen or so other books, and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, Clark has earned enough plaudits as teacher of our craft to sell a book just by being credited as its author.

But the title of this volume is attractive on its own: The Glamour of Grammar. It proves a remarkably useful "Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English," as the book's subtitle sums up the content.

In 50 chapters -- they're short in length but long on specifics -- he reveals once more his love for the English language and his gentle militancy toward preserving and enhancing its strengths. He obviously wants us to love it by living with its rules and restrictions comfortably and flexibly, rather that fearfully and restrictively.

Fluid Language

Clark advocates for an English used practically. Use it, he says, to fit the needs, wants, and idiosyncrasies of the reader. Recognize, he explains, that although language lives on tradition and requires continuity, it gains enrichment through adaptation and reflection of what is going on inside and outside of us.

He urges those of you and me, who teach and edit, not to be "members of the crotchety crowd," too concerned about "useless and unenforceable rules." Hunt for and savor details, he advises, so our words are not dulled by the lack of specifics. "I love language that moves, moves from the abstract to the concrete, moves from showing to telling, moves from the general to the particular."

A vs. The

The following gives you a sense of how Clark approaches a point. An early chapter is titled, "Honor the smallest distinctions -- even between a and the." Here is how he begins the discussion:

"When you live inside the English language, you will find yourself tinkering with a and the. The switch from one to the other can bring dramatic changes in meaning, tone, and reader response. What if the title of the classic book and movie had been Gone with a Wind?

"When Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon," Clark continues, "his words, now part of history, came across as garbled and confusing. It sounded like he said, 'That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.' For years I scratched my head, uncertain of the difference between 'man' and 'mankind' until someone suggested that an 'a' was missing: 'That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.' That single letter a can mean the world -- and in this case the moon."

Quotation Marks

Clark instructs benevolently, intelligently, and always by example. Addressing the usefulness of quotation marks, he notes that "direct quotations, bits of dialogue, a soliloquy, a special title, a creative emphasis, even a not-so-hidden message can be defined and enhanced by those sets of inverted, elevated commas." His clarifying example is a brief essay he wrote on the subject. It includes the following sentence, and I'll not put quote marks around it, this so you can see how Clark uses them within to impart his message: Narrative is nothing more or less than taking what happened "then" and rendering it in the "here and now."

Key Points

Each chapter ends with a "Keepsakes" section, comprised of key points he means you to remember. Following a discourse on ambiguity, he offers a list of sources for this failing, sometimes of unintended nature. The list includes: "failure to account for words that sound alike" and "placing words next to each other in a way that confuses their meanings" and "prepositions that change the meaning of verbs" and "words that can be abstract or concrete depending on context," and so forth.

Transforming Prepositions

In the body of the chapter which precedes that "Keepsakes," he has shared examples: "Added to a verb, a simple preposition can transform effect and meaning. It is the ambiguity in the preposition 'over' that makes us wince when we read: 'Cubans march over 6-year-old.' The writer uses 'over' as a synonym for concerning, not recognizing that 'march over' could be mistaken for trample."


He gets into crotchets, "odd, whimsical, or stubborn notions." Such as one "going back more than a century," demanding that the writer not split an infinitive. He debunks the stricture by reminding us of the opening to the immensely popular Star Trek adventures: "Space...the Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before."

"To boldly go." Argument made.

A Useful Guide

Words, sentences, punctuation, subject-verb agreement, gender equality, moods, active-passive choices, nonstandard English, denotation and connotation, associative imagination (similes, metaphors, comparisons and contrasts): all these and more get Roy Peter Clark's attention. The Glamour of Grammar is published by Little, Brown. Seriously consider it for a spot in your library. You'll come to use it.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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