Two Books Read During the Holidays: Reviews

A grammar handbook and a magnificent children’s book written by a global hero couldn’t be more different, but those two books were two I read over the holidays.

Thomas Parrish’s The Grumpy Grammarian was laugh-out-loud funny. It’s subtitle is “A How-Not-To-Guide to the 47Most Common Mistakes in English Made by Journalists, Broadcasters, and Others Who Should Know Better.” The author, Parrish pretends to have an older friend who has saved clippings full of errors from writers who “should know better.” Some of these come from prestigious newspapers and magazines (The New Yorker, Newsweek, USA Today, Washington Post to name a few) Some of the errors that make the grammarian friend grumps are “picky”; some are outdated, but others are just W-R-O-N-G.  The malapropisms and dangling modifiers often make the reader chuckle . It is not a book for all, but it was a delight to this grumpy grammarian. I gave it to two grammarian friends, father and son, who are anything BUT grumpy and decided to let them enjoy it as I did.

A children’s book by Malala Yousafzai,the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, which is  beautifully illustrated by the husband and wife team who go by the pseudonym KERASCOET was another fascinating reading “experience” I had this holiday season. It begins:
“When Malala was a child in Pakistan, she wished for a magic pencil.  She would use it to…

‘…draw a lock on her door to keep her brothers out.

…stop time so she could sleep an extra hour every morning.

…erase the smell of the trash dump near her house.’ ”

It tells how Malala, more than anything wanted to attend school, but in Pakistan this was forbidden because she was a girl. The book tells and shows in pictures how Malala found a pencil and wrote about the challenges she faced as a girl/young woman in Pakistan, a war-torn region.  Worldwide, people read her writing. The horrible attack she suffered is handled in a sensitive way (It is a child’s book, after all.) and points out that she saw the “magic of hope” through it all. As the cover states, this spectacular book is “The true story of one girl’s wish for a better world.”  It would be the perfect birthday book for a child or grandchild.  I was thoroughly enchanted by the illustrations and intrigued by the story.



Most of you know I teach at the university level, juniors and seniors.  The course is called Advanced Writing, but it might surprise you (if you are not a teacher yourself) what has to be re-taught in order to receive a decent paper from these students.  Here is a list of things that bother teachers (and educated readers) the most:

  1.  A paper that does not have anything to say, that is just turned in for the sake of turning it in.

2.    When there is overwhelming evidence that the paper has not been proofread.

3.  Failure to avoid words, phrases, and expressions that are overused, lazy ways to explain or describe:

“In today’s society”… Use instead “Today.”

In this paper I will discuss/show … Just state the point; the reader will know it is “you” and “your” paper.

Weak verbs, especially “go, going, gone/ get, got, gotten, getting”…The latter group shows up frequently in 7th grade writing. Take this as an insult; it is MEANT that way!

The reason is/was because… Due to the fact that… This is especially repulsive and annoying, not to mention wordy.

Overusing “you” , “your” or “you’re”. This is careless. It shows one cannot think of a way to address the audience except by using second-person “you”.

Ambiguous pronoun references, especially “it” and “they”. This is simply not acceptable in argumentative writing.

Cliches and the first phrase that you have heard so often, it immediately comes to mind. One example is ending your paper with “In conclusion…”

Alot (aka a lot of) This is not even a real word but should be two words. “A lot” (or even more horrendous) “A lota” means so many different things to different people that it has no meaning.  Twenty-five pennies is a lot of money to a two-year-old, a fist full.  Give a young adult twenty-five pennies, and he/she will say,  “This isn’t even a quarter… besides they won’t even fit in a vending machine!”

Using “where” incorrectly.  Do not use it to mean “that” (I read in the paper where they’re going to build a new office building downtown. This use sounds like you have  discovered the location of the building. )

The following are often seen in print, but are not standard English usage and are not acceptable for formal writing aimed at an academic audience:

Writers who use “that” referring to people, animals and things. My rule of thumb is to use “who” for people and “that” only for animals and things. “The student that wants to get ahead…” simply is WRONG!  The limb that broke my fall from the tree”… or the puppy that captured my heart”… both are correct.

People who use the term “very unique” are not choosing their words well.  Conventionally, “unique” means “one of a kind”. something cannot be” very one of a kind”.  Choose a different phrase such as  “very original” or  “very special”.  Save “unique” for something that IS one of a kind, the only one in existence.

Believe it or not (If you are a teacher you see it every day.) these errors turn up in every paper in every class.  I usually hand a list of these out the first day, titled PET PEEVES, and inform the students that if they want to please me, their target audience for their papers,  to avoid these pitfalls at all costs.  Even though I circle these errors over and over again each time I collect a set of papers,  I know I will still be circling them when grading final papers.  Sigh…