How To Make People Fall In Love With Grammar: An Interview With Grammar Girl

Hey readers,

I have a special treat for you today as I am interviewing Grammar Girl! Grammar Girl’s real name is Mignon Fogarty, and if you didn’t know, she’s the creator of the wildly popular Grammar Girl and the founder and managing director of Quick and Dirty Tips. She’s the online go-to expert for all things Grammar, and her fabulous Grammar Girl podcasts are downloaded nearly a million times each month. Her podcasts are so awesome that they’ve even won many awards, including Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards (2007, 2008) and iTunes Best Podcast (2007) and Best Classic Podcast (2008, 2009, 2010). As if that wasn’t impressive enough, Mignon has also appeared as a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and she’s been featured in the New York TimesBusiness WeekWashington PostUSA Today, and CNN.com.

Without further ado, here’s the interview:

The Interview

Ollin: First of all, thank you so much for stopping by, Grammar Girl.  It’s great to have you on the C2C!

Mignon: Thanks for the invitation.

Ollin: So let’s get right to it: let’s face it.  Grammar has gained a bad reputation over the years. (A bad reputation I don’t think it deserves.) Most people I know either hate grammar, don’t understand it, or find it boring. So, let’s address the first issue: why do you think so many people hate grammar?

Mignon: Many people have had negative experiences with grammar—a teacher who wrote harsh comments in red pen on papers or a relative who constantly corrected them. Those kinds of experiences can turn off people for life.

Ollin: Why do you think so many people are confused by grammar rules or don’t understand them?

Mignon: Schools don’t spend a lot of time on grammar and usage, and I’ve found that many of the things people struggle with, such as words that sound similar (affect and effect) or identical (hear and here), aren’t taught at all in school. People are expected to just know the difference. Again, instead of getting good instruction, people just get chided when they get things wrong.

Ollin: Finally, why do you think so many people find grammar boring?

It’s the way mechanics are taught. I remember watching my brother go on and on about the Pokemon universe while he was struggling with school. That kid had a fantastic memory—for things he found fun and interesting. I think of grammar, usage, and punctuation as the rules to the game of writing, and that makes them fun.

Ollin:  You always find ways, especially with your podcasts, to make grammar fascinating and intriguing to learn. What strategies can you recommend to help teachers make grammar a more exciting subject to learn? How can we make people “fall in love” with grammar? Or is that even possible?

Mignon: It won’t be possible for everyone, but we can do a better job than we’re doing now. I’ve seen teachers make a game of finding errors or fixing mangled sentences uttered by celebrities, give kids extra credit for finding errors in the newspaper, have them make their own grammar podcasts or videos, have them write grammar songs—all kinds of creative things. As an adult, there are still fun things to do with language. I was searching news archives the other day and found a story about Charlie Chaplin’s scandalous divorce in which he said his wife was not “intellectually stimulating,” and she countered by telling reporters he had no grasp of grammar. That’s kind of funny.

Ollin:  Whenever we decide to correct someone’s grammar, we risk the possibility that, if we aren’t careful, we might offend the person we are correcting—or worse, we might make that person hate grammar. How can we make sure we are more careful when we note an error?  Or better:  How can we correct someone’s grammar without making that person hate us?

Mignon: I never correct someone’s grammar unless they ask me for help first. I think it’s rude. I once heard a person say something oddly over and over, and I asked him if he was from another part of the country because I thought it might be a regional difference. He wasn’t, and I noticed he changed the way he said it after that. I felt bad because I think I might have embarrassed him.

There’s an argument to be made that you can approach people who have incorrect signs posted in their businesses to let them know, but I’d never do it myself.

Ollin:  Has someone ever tried to correct your grammar in an impolite manner? Were they right about the correction? How did it feel being at the “opposite” end—receiving the grammar advice and not giving it?

Mignon: Yes, people correct me all the time, and the funny thing is that the more rude they are, the more likely they are to be wrong. I’ve talked about it with a couple of other people who write about language, and they see the same thing. I honestly don’t know why someone would correct Grammar Girl without checking to make sure they’re right first. I’m not perfect, and when I occasionally make a mistake, I’m happy that someone lets me know as long as they’re polite.

Ollin:  My belief is that the tools of grammar are not there to help us reach “language perfection.” They are there to help us communicate our ideas, beliefs, and thoughts effectively, concisely, and clearly. But most people still think grammar is about perfection. I think they are mistaken. If you agree with me, why do you think grammar has lost its way?

Mignon: If there’s an instance in which you have to choose between grammar rules and clarity, I choose clarity every time. A good example is where you put periods relative to quotation marks. In the US, periods and commas go inside a closing quotation mark, but in technical writing that rule can cause a problem. Imagine that the writer needs to tell someone to type “Enter.” When it comes at the end of a sentence, readers might wonder whether they have to type the period. In such cases, if the writer must use quotation marks, it’s better to put the period outside even though it breaks a rule.

It’s also not uncommon for great fiction writers to break grammar rules. However, it’s important that the rule breaking be a stylistic choice and not simply because the writer doesn’t know the rules, and unfortunately, you see that a lot with beginning fiction writers.

Ollin: I have to ask you this, because you’re Grammar Girl:  what is the biggest grammar mistake you see people making and how can they fix it? 

It depends on the context. Business writers tend to capitalize too many words, and fiction writers seem to struggle with punctuation. It’s just a matter of taking a little bit of time to learn the rules or hiring a good editor who will mark things for you nicely, and then writers need to learn from those mistakes instead of brushing them aside.

Ollin:  I always like to end with this question:  what do you do to keep your head up when the going gets tough?  Any last words of encouragement or inspiration you can give my readers as they pursue their writing dreams?

When I’m feeling discouraged I go onto Twitter or Facebook and start interacting with my fans. I answer their questions, and usually they thank me, and then I feel like I did something good for the day. 

I also do frivolous work to cheer myself up. If I have a tough project I don’t want to do, I might make a map of where people say a certain regionalism or try to write a song about grammar—something that I can still pretend is work, but is actually something I probably shouldn’t be doing.

As for advice, everyone tells aspiring writers to write a lot, and that’s good advice, but I’d also encourage aspiring writers to study their craft. There are tons of great books, podcasts, websites, and newsletters about fiction writing, and I learn something almost every time I take the time to read or listen to them. And then of course, I’d recommend that people listen to the weekly Grammar Girl podcast, or subscribe to the newsletter or article RSS feed. It’s an easy way to absorb a lot of the basics.

Ollin: Thank you so much Grammar Girl!

Mignon Fogarty (Grammar Girl) is the creator of Grammar Girl and the founder and managing director of Quick and Dirty TipsHer six books include Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing (New York Times bestseller), 101 Misused Words You’ll Never Confuse Again (Washington Post bestseller), and Grammar Girl Presents the Ultimate Writing Guide for Students (adopted by Scholastic). You can purchase all her books by going here. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

>>> Guest post update: Wanna know how I landed Grammar Girl for an interview? Read my guest post on Writer Unboxed and find out: How to Get Guest Posts On Big Name Blogs and Land Dynamite Interviews.

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23 comments on “How To Make People Fall In Love With Grammar: An Interview With Grammar Girl

  1. Ellis Shuman says:

    Very enjoyable post! Thank you!

  2. So needed this today. Thanks for a great interview and grammar tips!🙂

    Darlene

  3. Ana says:

    I’ve been a Grammar Girl fan for years! Thanks for this great interview!

  4. Catherine Johnson says:

    Thanks for introducing me to Grammar Girl. I’m no expert but I did once correct someone who had a glaring mistake in his Twitter profile. I would have left it but things like that bother me and he was a writer. I mean come on, your Twitter profile is one line! (runs off to check mine is okay😉 I agree about schools too. I took a look at an eleven year olds homework and would struggle to get it right myself (though that was math😉 yet the basics are rarely taught.

    • Ollin says:

      To be fair, I’ve corrected people in the past. But after this interview I decided to refrain from doing that in the future. She’s right. It is kind of rude, and unless the mistake made it so I don’t understand the person at all, it really isn’t that important to correct. It’s all about effective communication. That’s really all that matters. Who care’s if it’s perfect?

  5. Ollin says:

    Thank you Grammar Girl! I think the most important lesson that I learned from this interview is that even the experts sometimes make mistakes, and even they get called out, sometimes rudely, by people who want to correct their grammar, and that’s okay. It inspires me that you keep moving on and never gave up.

    Thanks for the wonderful interview and insights, and congrats on all your success! Keep up the great work!

  6. Christina says:

    What a great interview:)

    I completely agree with Grammar Girl – if you don’t want to offend people, don’t correct them unless they ask. Sometimes just saying it yourself properly (in a casual manner that flows with the conversation) can also set people right. But no one likes to be corrected, especially not in a social setting where people want to be themselves and are already worried about fitting in.

  7. Small quibble:

    GG said, “…things people struggle with, such as words that sound similar (affect and effect)…”

    Actually, those two words are pronounced exactly the same in conversational speech; they’re only differentiated if one is hyperpronouncing for special effect. In both words, the stress is on the second syllable (‘FECT), so the first syllable is reduced to schwa. This is why native speakers frequently confuse them–because they were first learned aurally and not by spelling (the way second language learners do).

    • Ollin says:

      Hey Alan, I might be wrong, but I believe that is what she was driving at. But thanks for clarifying for those of us who were not sure!

  8. Good to see a bit of focus on grammar. It really is important for writers.
    If a teacher can make learning grammar fun that’s terrific and making it into a game is the best way. When I wanted to make sure that I was writing what I wanted to say as clearly as possible, I revised grammar rules (following the Australian style manual) and I really enjoyed it, I guess because I had a reason to do it.

    Normally, I’d never correct someone’s verbal grammar, but in a school situation as a teacher you need to. I try not to make the student feel bad, so I just repeat their sentence or phrase using the correct grammar, the idea being to model it.

    • Ollin says:

      I think as long as you do it in a way that encourage the student to learn more, that’s totally fine. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Tahlia!

  9. Aaron Pederson says:

    Very insightful interview Ollin!

    Grammar Girl said, “It’s also not uncommon for great fiction writers to break grammar rules. However, it’s important that the rule breaking be a stylistic choice and not simply because the writer doesn’t know the rules, and unfortunately, you see that a lot with beginning fiction writers.”

    I really agree with that. I think for writers, and artists in general, learning the basic techniques of the craft, and then getting to a point where we master them, is also a way to unlock our authentic voice. When we feel comfortable with the rules and procedures and fine details of the work, we can really just forget all that and just write and unlock our true creative potential (because we’re not thinking or focusing on grammar!).

    Charlie Parker, an influential jazz soloist, said, “Master your instrument, master the music, then forget all that shit and just play.”

  10. deniz says:

    Great interview! I agree that grammar is essential for clear thinking. If people were taught to think of it as a tool that’d help their understanding, maybe they’d look at it differently.

  11. Harry says:

    Bloody pedants! You make a telling point and then they hone in on some trivial grammar mistake.

  12. I teach 7th grade Language Arts. It was encouraging to hear Mignon Fogarty state that “fiction writers seem to struggle with punctuation. It’s just a matter of taking a little bit of time to learn the rules … and then writers need to learn from those mistakes instead of brushing them aside.” I do take a lot of time to note the errors – not in red ink or in nasty scrawls – and my hope is that they will look at more than just the grade and my comments. If they – we – look at what was wrong and how to correct it, then the mistakes will be a thing of the past. Hopefully. (BTW, I’ve used “Grammar Girl’s book in my class. Great book.)

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