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Home / Miles Kimball / Ephrat Livni Interviews Mignon Fogarty—”Grammar Girl”—on Changes in the English Language

Ephrat Livni Interviews Mignon Fogarty—”Grammar Girl”—on Changes in the English Language

Summary:
Pretty much anyone on the internet who has ever had a question about English usage has referred to the work of Mignon Fogarty, whether or not they know her name. Her “Grammar Girl” website and podcast have made her a usage guru for the masses, illuminating everything from misplaced modifiers to proper comma placement with easy-to-understand explanations and examples.Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network, a popular podcaster, and the author of numerous usage books. Her affection for English is infectious and has won her many fans, probably because—unlike some esteemed grammarians—she’s pretty chill for a linguistic stickler. Still, she says, ”People routinely tell me they’re afraid to send me email messages or tweet at me or even talk to me, which is horrible because

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Pretty much anyone on the internet who has ever had a question about English usage has referred to the work of Mignon Fogarty, whether or not they know her name. Her “Grammar Girl” website and podcast have made her a usage guru for the masses, illuminating everything from misplaced modifiers to proper comma placement with easy-to-understand explanations and examples.

Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network, a popular podcaster, and the author of numerous usage books. Her affection for English is infectious and has won her many fans, probably because—unlike some esteemed grammarians—she’s pretty chill for a linguistic stickler. Still, she says, ”People routinely tell me they’re afraid to send me email messages or tweet at me or even talk to me, which is horrible because I’m one of the least judgmental people you’ll meet, and I think weird language things are pretty cool.”

Sure, Fogarty has feelings about proper English. For example, the rule of direct address drives her crazy, or more specifically, the fact that we don’t use it in email, which puts her in a pickle. Theoretically, we should all be putting commas in email salutations, writing, “Hi, Mignon” instead of “Hi Mignon.” But since so few people adhere to the rule, actually following it ends up looking odd. “[F]or years I’ve struggled with feeling like I should put in the comma because I’m Grammar Girl, and not wanting to put it in because it seems incredibly pedantic,” she says.

Still, she accepts that language is an evolving project. There is no lost rule or word that Fogarty mourns, and she “won’t weep” if none of us ever use “whom” again. In fact, she wishes that people would understand that changes and variety are normal. Grammar Girl explains:

For example, older people tell me they find these words annoying: “parenting,” “fun” as an adjective (as in “That’s a fun game”), and “healthy” to refer to something that is good for you (as in “Pack a healthy lunch”). But most people younger than 40 aren’t even aware that these were once contested usages. It’s an endless cycle. Those people in their 70s and 80s said things that annoyed their grandparents. If something bothers you or sounds odd, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong or wrong in all situations.

In more than a decade of counseling English users on language, Fogarty has seen a lot of changes. By far, the most dramatic has been the rapid acceptance of the singular “they” by major style guides. She’s had to update her article on the topic every couple of years, as sentences such as “Tell the next caller they won a car” become more widely accepted.

The internet has played a part in transforming language, giving people “a place to be more publicly playful,” she says. That’s a good thing, in Fogarty’s view. However, there are downsides, too, because the web has also normalized bad writing as we publicize quick notes that were once private.

Unsurprisingly, Fogarty believes that grammar still matters. After all, we are judged by our use of language in certain contexts, so it’s worth knowing the rules even though they may change. Employers faced with too many job applicants seek reasons to weed out people, and excluding resumés with writing errors is an easy way to whittle down the pile, she argues.

“The president’s Twitter account and the sloppy press releases from the White House make it a lot harder to tell people that it’s important to write well if you want to get ahead, but there have always been examples of successful people who were poor writers. I still think they are the exceptions though,” Fogarty says. “You’re making it a lot harder on yourself if you can’t put together a decent sentence.”

Perhaps the most important reason to care about language is clear communication. “If you’re a polite writer or you want to have the best chance of your writing making a difference, one of your top goals should be making your writing easy to understand,” Fogarty says.

To that end, she advises reading widely. While you can study grammar rules and memorize the technicalities, the best approach is to absorb great writing and see how it’s done. Fogarty advises sticking to nonfiction books and journalistic publications with a reputation for good editing if your goal is to understand standard English mechanics.

Remember, however, that no one is perfect, not even Fogarty. Grammar Girl also makes mistakes sometimes and lets errors slide by. “I’m a terrible proofreader, so I often don’t even see the errors. There’s a difference between knowing the rules and being able to explain them in an engaging way, and having the kind of brain that catches every error,” she admits. “I’ve lost track of the number of times people have sent me follow-up emails apologizing for previous typos that I didn’t even see.”

Updated: A previous version of this post stated that Fogarty is a professor of journalism at the University of Nevada, based on her website bio. She no longer teaches there, however. 

Miles Kimball
Miles Kimball is Professor of Economics and Survey Research at the University of Michigan. Politically, Miles is an independent who grew up in an apolitical family. He holds many strong opinions—open to revision in response to cogent arguments—that do not line up neatly with either the Republican or Democratic Party.

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