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Grammar Refresh: Keeping Up with Language Changes

April 30, 2021

No matter what you do, you need to use good grammar. This holds true for corporate jobs, professional offices, and for freelancers.

If you haven’t had a grammar class in the last twenty years, chances are, you need to update your grammar knowledge.

Language changes

A language constantly evolves with the people who use it. And people don’t follow rules all the time. They improvise, and they are creative. And the world changes. For example, twenty years ago, if you mentioned a browser, people probably thought of someone looking through a store. Today if you say the word browser, most immediately think of a computer application like Google Chrome.

Language disputes

There are two grammar camps: descriptivist or prescriptivist.

Descriptivists describe language exactly as they find it spoken or written among ordinary people. They make no attempt to judge the usage of a word or a grammatical structure as correct or incorrect. Many people are surprised to learn that most dictionaries are not published to tell people how to use words. Instead, they report how words are being used.

This sort of thing upsets prescriptivists. For them, language is either right or wrong. Rules exist for a reason, and we risk diluting our meaning and corrupting our heritage if we break them.

And while it is easy for descriptivists to sit back and make fun of prescriptivists for having thumbs up their own posteriors, the fact is, in academia and business, it does matter if people don’t use standard English.

Grammar resources

Here are a few sources to keep you up to date.

Books

  • Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer’s Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears, and Outmoded Rules of the English Language by Theodore Bernstein. This book is almost fifty years old. However, some of the rules it addresses are still believed to be sacrosanct by many. And it is an entertaining read. Bernstein was an assistant managing editor of The New York Times.
  • The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation by Bryan Garner. Garner leans toward the prescriptivist side of the grammar debate, but he is not inflexible. He knows what he is talking about and everything he does is impeccably researched. He wrote the grammar section for The Chicago Manual of Style after all. This would be a good choice for any professional writer or editor.
  • The McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage, 2nd ed. by Mark Lester and Larry Beason. If I only needed one book to refer to on occasion, this inexpensive book would be it. It just provides the basic rules and is both accessible and entertaining.
  • Webster’s New World English Grammar Handbook, 2nd ed. by Gordon Leberger and Kate Shoup. This makes a great desk reference for those who want to double-check for correctness. It has lists of grammar rules and writing tips and was written for students and professionals who do not work primarily with writing.
  • Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, 3rd. ed. by Patricia T. O’Conner.  The author is a former editor of the New York Times Book Review and she doesn’t just tell you what needs to be done, she takes time to explain why. One reviewer said reading this book is like “chatting about the nuances of grammar over a morning cup of coffee and a warm cinnamon roll.”

Websites

  • Guide to Grammar and Writing. While this site looks dated, it is an excellent resource for explaining all the facets of English grammar.
  • Common Errors in English Usage. This was the website of a now-retired professor, Paul Brians of Washington State University.
  • OneLook Dictionary Search. Some dictionaries are more reputable than others. This site lets you compare definitions from more than one hundred dictionaries in one spot.

Blogs and podcasts

Bookmark in a “To Be Read” folder and dive in when you have time. These are not great for finding the answers to questions. But they are great at alerting you to recent trends and debates in the English Language. Frequently dipping into them will help you pay attention to issues you may otherwise ignore.

NOTE: Some of these are no longer active. But they are so useful or delightful, I put them here anyway for those who may be unfamiliar with them.

Time to explore

Do you have grammar sources you couldn’t live without? Share them here.

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