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Grammar books, like, way readable

Author, reviewer join backlash against word snobs - their editors included
by: , ‘Mortal Syntax’
June Casagrande
Penguin Books

For every news article you read about dictatorship overseas, there is an author suffering oppression much closer to home.

I am speaking, of course, about remorseless word fascism - specifically, that wrought by copy editors, every newsroom's self-styled final arbiters of punctuation, spelling, writing, word choice and grammar.

OK, sure, these obsessive word detectives would rightly point out that they have rescued my copy a thousand times from embarrassing goofs - but does that excuse all the savagery inflicted upon my otherwise flawless prose? Need each of my word usements be validated by the myopic dictionary police? Must every lead or 'nut' paragraph appear sooner than the fourth paragraph?

You can understand, then, why I opened June Casagrande's latest book, 'Mortal Syntax,' with great hope. Its subtitle, '101 language choices that will get you clobbered by the grammar snobs - even if you're right,' promised nothing short of a revolutionary screed, sort of an 'Anarchist's Cookbook' to help cast off the yoke of my oppressors.

And Casagrande did not disappoint.

'Mortal Syntax' is a sequel to Casagrande's first book, 'Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies.' She also writes a newspaper column titled 'A Word, Please,' that appears in community newspapers in Southern California, Florida and Texas.

Casagrande exhibits total comfort with her topic. Every chapter focuses on a seeming fallacy of grammar and then discloses whether it is, in fact, wrong.

She is not merely throwing around opinions; rather, she consults 14 different texts including dictionaries, The Associated Press Stylebook and Strunk and White's 'The Elements of Style.'

The prospect of reading 101 such chapters might not sound all that appealing, but only because you have not read them yet. Casagrande flashes a delightful, multilayered wit on just about every page, laced with the sort of pleasing wordplay that even a 'grammar snob' surely could learn to love.

In passing judgment on each grammatical debate, she issues a decree that classifies the answer in a number of ways ranging from 'wrong' to 'like, totally controversial' to 'rock-freakin'-solid.'

Have you heard someone say 'an historic moment' rather than 'a historic moment'? Casagrande comes down with a typically nuanced ruling: 'This usage is: The completely defensible choice of obnoxious poseurs everywhere.'

Thanks to her book, I learned that using 'way' as an adverb, as in 'I am way cool,' is not itself way cool from a grammarian's standpoint - but it is somewhat cool, or defensible, at least. That's because Webster's defines 'way' as informally meaning 'to a considerable extent.'

Thanks to her book, I also learned to feel comfortable ending a sentence with the word 'with.' The old story about Winston Churchill on ending sentences with a preposition? Likely a myth (I'm sure the copy editor would prefer 'a likely myth,' but I'm sticking with this).

Thanks to Casagrande's book, I now know whether or not it's OK to use 'whether or not,' 'like' instead of 'such as,' and 'gift' instead of 'give.'

And about that verbal tic where youngsters, like, use the word 'like' to punctuate sentences? Casagrande even finds justification for that in 'Garner's Modern American Usage.' She says youngsters apparently have been using it that way since the late 1700s. Just imagine: 'My good man, let's go dump tea in, like, Boston Harbor.'

On the more word-geeky side, she reveals esoteric grammatical terms like 'notional subject' and 'copopular verbs' - terms that in essence describe loopholes in the usual grammar rules. Since presumably no one understands them, they will be useful to throw around next time I try to dupe my copy editors into thinking I know how to write.

Once you digest the humor and good writing, 'Mortal Syntax' is a book about language and how it cannot be bound by hard-and-fast rules.

Rather, language evolves too fast (or is it quickly?) and is bigger and more powerful than any tome or expert can hope to contain.

As Casagrande quotes to open her book, 'American English remains vibrant and effective precisely because we're skeptical of authorities.'

Which reminds me, have I mentioned copy editors lately? The more I read this book, the more I realized that Casagrande feels my pain. Chapter 44, in fact, is a thinly disguised rant about 'certain community news editors' - a clear euphemism for copy editors - and how at times they fail to recognize her genius.

Talk about a great way to get good reviews.

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June Casagrande

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 9

Where: Powell's Books, 1005 W. Burnside, 503-228-4651