Why does grammar matter to authors?

The Grammar Patrol writes monthly blog posts here about grammatical issues for writers. To kick off 2016, eFrog Press interviews them about their obsession!


You both seem to love grammar. When did you each first realize it was both intriguing and important?

J: I had wonderful teachers, Mrs. McManus in 8th grade and Mr. Utech in 11th grade, who really focused on the structure of language, a.k.a. grammar. I think that’s when I became a grammar geek. When we diagrammed, I loved taking sentences apart.

E: I, too, remember specific teachers. Miss Hoezel caught on in my 8th grade Honors English that I was guessing on possessive apostrophes and taught me the arrow method that Judith and I have taught to hundreds of students. And Miss Clark, 9th, had us diagram sentences all year. It may be a lost art now, and I might not be able to diagram more than a simple sentence—but that structure is parked in my brain.


Word processors have very good spell checkers and grammar checkers, so why should writers worry about grammar?

J: Since writing involves tons of revision, one has to understand the structure of language in order to come up with better ways to say things.  It’s crucial. Alert: Those electronic grammar and spelling checkers don’t spot everything. For example, they won’t distinguish between correct use of homophones (one/won, sleight/slight, role/roll, pore/pour).)

E: Computer checkers may catch simple errors, but we want to know the why, not just the what. And writers use complex writing to get across plots, emotions, and character traits. Humans have the brains to comprehend complexity. Computers don’t. Sussing out meaning from gorgeous long paragraphs may prove beyond their ken. And we sometimes disagree with the grammar checker’s recommendations. Many make the three periods in ellipses single-spaced (…—called a glyph), but they’re supposed to have a space on each side ( . . . ), as the Chicago Manual of Style recommends.


Once an agent sells a manuscript, an editor from the publishing house will clean up the grammar. Why do very creative writers need to pay attention to something as mundane as grammar rules?

J: Sadly, grammatical skills of publishing house editors vary widely. A writer’s best writing tool is his/her own knowledge and care.

E: When an editor receives a manuscript riddled with spelling and grammar bloopers, it automatically gets rejected, particularly in today’s competitive publishing scene. Even if the writing is strong and the ideas unique, it’s a no-go. As Lily Tomlin would say, “And that’s the truth.”

Your blog posts almost make grammar fun. Do you read each other’s rough drafts of your book projects or does your grammatical expertise make that unnecessary?

J: It always helps to have other fresh eyes on a rough draft the writer may have become too immersed in to be objective. We’ve written newspaper and magazine articles and books together, so we have often relied upon each other to dig in and find mistakes.

E: Despite the fact that we always read our “final” version aloud to ourselves, we would never turn in a manuscript without having other eyes on the material. We, as writers, can be so close to our words, plots, and characters, that we could miss pronoun reference problems, or simple spelling errors, or missing commas.


Why should authors care about grammar?

J: If authors don’t care about grammar, their work will appear unpolished and amateurish. What we write sets the standard for writers, readers, and second language learners who come after us.

E: How words work together to create meaning fascinates us. We want our manuscripts to have a flow, an easy resonance with readers. Poor grammar distracts readers even when the ideas or stories being put forth are valid. (Here, we both add a second tip of the hat to past teachers and our families for our own lifelong love of books and reading.)


How has your knowledge of grammar helped you in your writing career?

J: A Frank and Ernest cartoon in our More Nitty-Gritty Grammar book has the line, “Words down go we’ve good pretty—should now invent we syntax!” I use the analogy of a contractor trying to build a house without a knowledge of geometry, balance, structural integrity, and how to choose the proper tools. Good luck, house. For a writer, not understanding how words fit together and having a firm grasp of grammar may result in poorly constructed phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and whole manuscripts. Between us, we’ve written more than thirty books, and a strong sense of how grammar works has meant our manuscripts float above those riddled with errors and have a better chance of being read and purchased.

E: When we—two grammarphiles (grammar lovers)—started teaching one-day grammar seminars through San Diego State Extension, we never dreamed it would lead to a book. The seminars drew many adults—from folks who just wanted a refresher to true grammarphobes. Seven years in, a guy on the way out the door, said, “So! Where’s the book?” We created a full-blown proposal complete with sample page layouts showing how we’d use grammar-related cartoons in an easy-going/funny grammar guide. Ten Speed Press bought it and these books become “evergreens,” books that just keep selling— more than 100,000 copies of Nitty-Gritty Grammar and More Nitty-Gritty Grammar have sold over the years.


What is the funniest grammar mistake you have ever seen?

J and E: We were not amused when the first crate of books came labeled Nitty-Gritty Grammer. (You get two A’s if you spell grammar with two A’s.) Or how about the close call the Naval Academy had with 8,000 invitations, all ready to mail, with the first word spelled “Navel” instead of “Naval.” A close call! (That’s why we love copyeditors!)


What error drives you crazy?

J: Pronouns are troublemakers. “Jenny and me (I) went for a walk.”   Or, “Send it to Frank and I (me)” “Hand the tickets to myself. (me)”

E: “Lay down.” Do teach your dog good grammar: “Lie down, Mac.” (Mnemonic: Hens lay. People lie.) Or “Rounding the corner, the church loomed in the town square.” A mobile church. How fanciful.

We taught writing in elementary and middle school classes and on the last day we’d get warm thank you messages from students that ended “Your so fine.” Yikes.


Who are The Grammar Patrol Members?
JJosephsonPhoto1_crop2In addition to their popular Nitty-Gritty Grammar and More Nitty-Gritty Grammar books, the Grammar Patrol are authors of many other titles. Judith Pinkerton Josephson has written lively, awaEdith Hope Finerd-winning biographies and historical books for young people. Edith Hope Fine also writes biography and recently released her fun vocabulary program with Greek and Latin for Cryptomaniacs! Fine is also a picture book author and shared her secrets for writing for children in Jump Froggies! Writing Children’s Books.


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Hey, all you eFrog blog readers—send grammar questions you’d like us to cover in 2016. We’d love to hear your ideas.

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