You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

Toss Strunk and White. Here is the little book about language you need

The Baltimore Sun

There is a book I have been craving for years, and now June Casagrande has written it.

I should explain.

I learned the traditional schoolroom English grammar back in the day in Kentucky, and later, despite studying English in college, made no acquaintance with linguistics. Now I teach editing at Loyola University Maryland to students who are either utterly unschooled in grammar or burdened with a motley set of schoolroom shibboleths.

What I have craved is a straightforward book on basic grammar and usage that, without ditching the traditional grammar, informs it with linguistics, all accessible to a general reader. (I can’t impose Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum’s formidable Student’s Introduction to English Grammar on my charges, because we can’t afford to spend more than three weeks on grammar and usage before moving on.)

And now we have one: The Joy of Syntax (Ten Speed Press, 264 pages, $14.99), a succinct and mercifully lucid summing-up of the basics.

Open the “Verbs” chapter, and there you will find explanation of tense; aspect; regular and irregular; transitive, intransitive, and copular; auxiliary, modal auxiliary, and lexical; operators including dummy operators; mood; voice, phrasal verbs; gerunds; and participial modifiers.

Turn to “Determiners” for the possessive, demonstrative, interrogative, relative, nominal relative, quantifying, conditional, and exclamative, all with straightforward explanations and apt illustrative examples.

It has been a pleasant journey for me through this little book, both for confirmation of some of the explanations I have used in class and for provision of a vocabulary for a number of things I understood intuitively. I expect many of you will have a similar experience.

Ms. Casagrande is also blessedly sensible with advice. Grammar, she explains, “is at heart a set of standards based on common practice,” and she is clear on how those standards develop and change. In writing about the verbing of nouns, she says, “Transitions … always involve a period in which the usage is technically incorrect. … There are risks in using terms that haven’t gained full acceptance.”

She also advises, “ There is no such thing as proper English. Propriety depends on circumstance, and circumstances vary widely.” And warns that there are constructions that are “correct but sound awful” and conventions, such as putting the first-person pronoun last in a coordinate noun phrase, that are “founded on etiquette, not grammar.”

If you write, if you edit, if you teach, you will want to have this book. I intend to press it on my students. They will seldom find fifteen bucks better spent.

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