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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

GG: Yeah. I mean, I think you did a similar thing that I did with your first book, “Grammar Snobs are Great Big Meanies,” was maybe more general, and then as you get deeper into it, you see that you can write whole books about specific areas.

JC: Yeah, yeah. And it becomes a question of where's the need? What do people want to know? Where are people sort of feeling a gap in their own knowledge that they would like some help filling in and some comfort and encouragement to fill them in?

GG: Right, and like I do, you also interact with people because you write a grammar column for newspapers, so I'm sure you hear from readers, just like I hear from listeners. But then you also do freelance editing, right?

JC: I do, yeah —  freelance copy editing and proofreading, a little copy editing and that kind of thing. And the editing work, I do a lot of that for what is essentially sponsored sponsored content articles for Tronc, which is the parent company that just sold Los Angeles Times and still owns the Chicago Tribune, and I started doing that like eleven years ago when they were still just the Los Angeles Times. But they're sponsored content, they're not advertorials. People think they are. They're just articles that are supposed to create a friendly environment for advertisers. As a result, they're sometimes written by less experienced writers — I'm being gentle here. And so I see a lot of basic writing problems, not on the “grammar and usage” level, but on the “not so great at communicating things” level, which results in things like dangling modifying phrases and just badly constructed sentences in general. So editing is sort of an excellent education in people's  writing weaknesses and where they could actually benefit from specific instructions, specific help.

GG: Yeah, absolutely. I felt the same way when I was teaching undergrads and seeing their writing. It's like, oh, wow. It reminded me the things that people need to learn.

JC: Yeah! And there's a pattern here and people don't get this one concept, that if you tell them that a modifying phrase works better when it's close to the noun it's modifying, they end up writing better. It's kind of a cool thing that grammar can actually help communication, not just propriety, not just dot your i's and cross your t's, but can actually make you get your point across better if you understand it.

GG: Right. Oh I know, it's so true. And I love how in your introduction, you talk about the difference between styles and rules and how people misunderstand how the style guides we have to keep things consistent within an organization or a publication are different than the rules of grammar.

And I feel like I have certain rules that I don't like and sometimes I don't follow in my own writing, you know? And I was wondering if you have any rules or styles like that that you just — even though you know you're supposed to tell people to do it a certain way — you just don't like them?

JC: There are a lot. A lot of them are style rules. One thing that really bothers me in some writing is when people insert the initials of an organization in parenthesis, after that organization name. This is a correct style in some publications — it's neither grammar, nor propriety. I mean, not usage or anything like that. It's simply a matter of how some publications like to do it. And I was raised on these publications that don't do that. They adhere to the theory that people do not immediately learn the initials of organizations just because you tell them to. And so the result — if I say, “Welcome to the organization of people who listen to Grammar Girl podcasts, we've got the OA”—I've already forgotten it. Let's say it's the OAGGP group. Just because you tell people once, these are the initials, doesn't mean they're going to remember what they stand for three sentences later. And so, it drives me nuts. And the editing philosophy I was raised in is that you should use words people already know, instead of forcing them to memorize new terms they don't know.

GG: Yeah.

JC: The alternative is just kind of rude. Like, here are the terms you need to learn, right now, in order to understand what I'm trying to tell you. It's not accommodating the reader; it's just bossing the reader around, and that drives me nuts. I'm trying to think of an actual usage or style rule I don't follow...I believe the Los Angeles Times style, which I've used off and on for the last eleven years, still has a rule that says you can't use the word "like" to mean "such as." So you can't say, many items like the tacos and the burritos are available at happy hour, or something like that. They say you have to say "such as." Apologies to the Los Angeles Times editing staff if I have this wrong and this is an old rule, but that drives me nuts. There's no reason to use "such as" when "like" works as well and sounds better, so I will openly defy that rule.

GG: I have to tell you, I am absolutely gleeful because we did not talk ahead of time and that's the rule that I had in mind that I hate when I was thinking of asking you this question.

JC: Oh, no kidding!

GG: Yeah, I hate using "such as" when "like" seems much more natural and what I would say when I'm speaking. And it just doesn't make any sense, but I know there's this rule that a lot of publications use about using "such as" and "like" for different situations, and I hate it!

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