Grammar Girl herself, Mignon Fogarty, talks to CMOS

Mignon FogartyEvery day, Mignon Fogarty takes on questions ranging from where to properly place commas, to what is a gerund, to whether Pig Latin is considered a language. In this month’s Shop Talk, she talks about how she creates her Grammar Girl posts and podcasts and weighs in on changes to The Chicago Manual of Style.

March 4th is National Grammar Day! How should people celebrate this noteworthy holiday?

I hope people celebrate by learning something new about language—by reading a style guide or finding a fabulous new language blogger, tweeter, or podcaster to follow. Bloggers, tweeters, and podcasters can hold contests for people to write poems or short stories with grammar themes. I’d love for it to eventually be a day when people exchange books with friends, family, and colleagues.

You started out as a technical writer. Can you tell us how you became Grammar Girl? What’s a typical day like for you now?

I was also a technical editor, and I noticed that my clients were making the same mistakes over and over again—simple things such as confusing “i.e.” with “e.g.” or misusing a semicolon. It wasn’t my job to teach them though; they just wanted me to fix their papers. I found that frustrating, and largely on a whim, I decided to start a short podcast that delivered one lighthearted, useful writing tip every week. I knew there were a lot of people out there who needed help with their writing, but it was mostly just something I thought would be fun to do for myself. If my clients didn’t want to take five minutes to learn how to use “which” and “that,” maybe someone else would, and that would make me feel better.

My typical day consists of working on the regular Grammar Girl staples, often making time for interviews and speaking gigs, and filling the rest of my time with whatever big side project I’m doing. For example, every day I wake up and check Twitter and Facebook to answer people’s questions, see what is going on in the language world, and post interesting stories that I find. Every week I produce the Grammar Girl podcast (sometimes I have guest writers, but I still love writing the show myself) and a weekly e-mail newsletter. The big side projects have included writing seven books, and for the last eight months, I’ve spent most of my time developing a word-matching game called Grammar Pop. I hope to have the game out for the iPad by May and then have it ready for other platforms quickly thereafter.

Could you walk us through the process of creating a typical post or podcast? Do you have anyone else edit your work before it goes live?

If I write the podcast myself, I usually spend a day or two writing it. Since I’ve already produced more than 350 shows, I often spend time looking for a news hook that can make an old topic timely or interesting again. Once the show is written, the Quick and Dirty Tips editor, Beata Santora, reviews it and sends it back to me. Then I record the audio, do a bunch of audio processing and editing, and send it to my Quick and Dirty Tips producer, Dan Feierabend, who finishes the audio editing and updates the podcast feed. I also upload the transcript of the show to my website and often choose an image or pull quote to add to the page.

As the publisher of  a widely used style manual, we often run into the issue of people confusing “style” and “grammar.” How do you explain the difference?

I often say if there were one thing I could teach people, it would be the difference between a style and a rule. So many people were taught certain styles as though they were rules that it creates confusion and tension. People go around thinking they’re doing something right and everyone else is doing it wrong, when really it’s just a style. Whether to use the Oxford comma is a great example. Depending on which style you follow, you’d put a comma before the “and” in this series: “red, white, and blue.” It’s a choice. (Chicago recommends using the comma.) Although grammar can be gray too, it seems to me there are more hard-and-fast rules. For example, you always use object pronouns after prepositions: “between us.” To write it as “between we” is wrong because “we” is a subject pronoun.

Do you have any favorite exceptions to traditional grammar rules?  (For instance, “don’t split infinitives,” “never use the passive voice,” and “never end a sentence with a preposition.”)

Every modern language expert I’m aware of thinks all three of those “rules” are bogus. I’ll add “don’t start a sentence with a conjunction” to the list. Many people were taught that it’s wrong to start a sentence with a conjunction such as “and” and “but,” but it’s not a real rule. It’s true that doing so can create a conversational, informal tone, but even a cursory search will reveal that great writers do it all the time. (Chicago backs me up on this in section 5.206.)

Do you have any special social media grammar rules that you recommend writers follow?

Back in 2009, I wrote a short Twitter style guide called “Strunk & Twite.” It’s a bit out of date now, but many of the concepts endure. For example, if you spend just a few seconds, you can usually rewrite a tweet or Facebook post to fit the character limit without mangling the language. Also, I encourage writers to use proper capitalization in social media posts; using lowercase letters doesn’t save any characters, so it just looks lazy and makes your posts harder to read. Many readers do have an expectation of lower quality writing on social media, but if someone wants to be viewed as a professional writer, I think it’s important to follow standard language conventions as much as possible. I know I’ve seen posts from some people who claim to be writers, and based on what I see, I’d never hire them or buy their books. On the other hand, I have bought books from people because their posts are consistently clear and clever or insightful or compelling.

You’ve talked about adjusting your speech and writing styles for different audiences. Would you say that this applies to social media situations as well?

I definitely think social media lends itself to a clipped or informal tone. There’s probably someone out there successfully tweeting with a formal style, but I haven’t seen it. Perhaps something people haven’t noticed though is the difference between different social media sites. I post independently to my Twitter and Facebook accounts; I don’t use third-party tools to post the same thing everywhere because I think different sites call for different kinds of posts. Sure, sometimes it’s fine to use the same post, but I often find myself tweaking the wording of a post from one site before I move it to another, and I also don’t post the same things everywhere. For example, I post more personal observations on Twitter than I do on Facebook, and I post more pictures to Facebook than I do to Twitter. I’m still trying to figure out all the other social networks.

One last question: When it comes to The Chicago Manual of Style, do you prefer the updated blue cover or the classic orange cover?

I adore the updated blue cover with the orange that boldly peeks out to pay homage to the past. When I first saw it in a bookstore, I oohed and aahed, grabbed my husband, and dragged him over to look at it. He thought I was crazy.

Mignon Fogarty is the creator of Grammar Girl and the founder and managing director of Quick and Dirty Tips. She is the author of numerous books, most recently Grammar Girl’s 101 Troublesome Words You’ll Master in No Time.

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