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Grammar Enthusiast June Casagrande on 'The Joy of Syntax'

In this Stitcher Premium bonus episode, Grammar Girl talks with June Casagrande, fellow grammar enthusiast and author of "The Joy of Syntax."

By
Mignon Fogarty,
The Joy of Syntax Book cover

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of a Stitcher Premium bonus podcast.

Today, I talked with June Casagrande. She writes a grammar column for Tronc and she has a new book out called “The Joy of Syntax.” Her previous books include “Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies” and “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” And although I've only met her in person a couple of times, we're Twitter friends, and I've known June for many years. By the time we're finished, I hope you'll love her as much as I do. Let's get started.

Grammar Girl: Hi, June! Thanks so much for being here with me today.

June Casagrande: Thanks for having me!

GG: So you've got this great new book out, “The Joy of Syntax.” Why don't we get started. You can just tell me a little bit about what inspired you to write this book.

JC: Well, as a grammar and usage expert, you know there is sort of a big divide between the average person who has a strong sense of grammar and the academic world where linguistics and syntax are the basis of grammar, and you know how this results in clashes, like between descriptivists (which are people who say this is how the language is used) and prescriptivists (which are people who say this is how the language should be used). And a lot of that divide is based on this knowledge gap that otherwise word-savvy people have.

Word-savvy people often don't have a basic foundation in English syntax, and so I wanted to help bridge that gap for people, sort of bring the two worlds together and helping people who know that they're good with grammar but feel like they're missing something in their basic knowledge level. Sort of help them get that foundation underneath what is already a very strong skill set.

GG: Yeah, and you've really succeeded with that. I mean, you have this great section on sentences that start with "it is" or "there are," and I learned terms I had never heard before! You broke it down in such a way that even though I've been doing this for twelve years, I learned things I didn't know from that section of your book. And I was wondering if when you were writing it — I know you've been doing this just as long — did you learn new things as you were researching and writing the book too, or did you already know it all?

JC: It is very frustrating how intimidating this subject is and how hard it is to really wrap your mind around all of it. I can open one of my own old books and say, huh, I forgot that. I no longer have a good grasp of that. I'm behind in the subject matter. So every time I sit down to write something about grammar, I'm inclined to bump into stuff I don't know and stuff I forgot, and specifically in this book one of the things that stands out to me is pronouns. I'm always surprised at how many more pronouns there are than I remember, and specifically indefinite pronouns, like the word "all" is categorized as a pronoun if you use it that way. If you say "all are welcome," it's functioning as a subject of the sentence, so it's a pronoun. And if you say "all people are welcome," then it's determiner. It's functioning adjectively, so to speak. And I always forget stuff like that, and relearning it is always a terrifying, terrifying, intimidating experience. Yeah, I can't write about grammar based off my own knowledge. I always have to re-research and reference and relearn stuff.

GG: Yeah, that's true for me too. I will Google things and my own articles will come up. I'll think, this is funny. And the thing about pronouns is true too. When I was making Grammar Pop years ago, which is a game where you identify parts of speech, those words that are weird pronouns that you don't think of, like “all” and sometimes "there," you know, categorizing them as pronouns surprised me then. And again I had forgotten because it's been a while, and you bring it up. It's in your book. It's right there, and it's so great.

JC: Yeah, thank you.

GG: Yeah. I noticed you've been chopping up ideas for your books. I mean, your last book — I think it was your last book — was just about punctuation, right? That was “The Best Punctuation Book, Period,” which is a great title. And now this one is “The Joy of Syntax” — it's just about the grammar. Is it easier for you to separate things like that? Do you think it's more useful for readers to know which book to go to to get which question answered?

JC: Each book is based on a new idea or observation. With “The Best Punctuation Book, Period,” I have to give my editor credit for the title. My title was "The Best Punctuation Book Ever" and she said why don't we do "period," and I was like, why didn't I think of that? But with that, it occurred to me that there weren't really any super comprehensive punctuation guides — ones that will show you that "Veteran's Day" doesn't have apostrophe in it in many styles, but "Mother's Day" does, and it's singular— just getting that granularly specific alongside the basic rules and how they might be different in different contexts. There was no guide with that, and I was really excited about the idea of a really thorough punctuation book.

For “The Joy of Syntax,” it was partly my editor's idea, Lisa Westmoreland at Ten Speed Press. She said she just wanted to do a general grammar book with me, and I thought, “Well, my take on general grammar at this point in my own education and my own life is that people who are very good at it sometimes don't have that foundation.” So, that was sort of my spin on her idea of "let's do a general grammar book." But each book is its own sort of, hey, no one's really helped people with this specific viewpoint on the language yet. And I see what I think is a similar pattern in your titles. You'll have a list of words that college students need to know — these kinds of things. So I think I see the same dynamic in your book concepts.

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