A grammar columnist tries to compete with authors of better books such as Woe Is I
Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies: A Guide to Language for Fun and Spite. Penguin, 199 pp., $14, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
June Casagrande is a snob about how unsnobbish she is. She says early in Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies that “the problem with language today is that the people writing the rules are such blowhards that not even they themselves can deny it.” Then she spends much of the book listing her own rules, which often make no more sense than those she dislikes. She insists, for example, that the short form of “until” is “till” not “’til.” Why? Just “check your dictionary,” she says. Why follow dictionaries on this one and not on issues on which she disagrees with some of them? And aren’t some dictionaries more trustworthy than others? “’Til,” she says, “just happens to be wrong.”
A larger problem with this book that good writing is about much more than grammar. And from her title onward, Casagrande trades on humor that is often snide, clichéd, or sophomoric. “Meanies come in many forms, not just human,” she writes of grammar snobs. “They can be not only animal, but also mineral. In rare cases, they can even be vegetable, but we’ll talk about William Safire later.” What’s the point of such a personal attack on the New York Times columnist? The tone of Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies resembles that of a high school student who feels superior to but wants desperately to join the popular kids – a group that in this case includes Lynne Truss, author of the popular Eats, Shoots and Leaves.
One of the few well-known grammar authorities Casagrande does not attack is Patricia T. O’Conner, a former editor of the New York Times Book Review and author of Woe Is I (reviewed on this blog on Dec. 30, 2006, and archived in the “How to” category), the best grammar book for students or people who have forgotten what they learned in the eighth grande. Casagrade may have spared Woe Is I because it comes from one of her publisher’s imprints. Or maybe she just realizes that it’s a much better book.
Best line: Casagrande makes some good points about frequently confused words such as “disburse” and “disperse.” She quotes a line from The Da Vinci Code: “His Holiness can disperse monies however he sees fit.” This sentence, she says, suggests that the fictional pope was “hurling fistfuls of euros from a hole in his Plexiglas popemobile.”
Worst line: Many of the worst lines are pointless jabs at other grammarians, such as the attack Safire. Others are sophomoric : “I had one college professor who was a bona fide jerkwad. It took me a while to realize that he was a bona fide jerkwad on account of the fact that I was a bona fide kiss-up.”
Editor: David Cashion
Furthermore: Casagrande writes the weekly column “A Word, Please” for several community news supplements to the Los Angeles Times. Unlike Woe Is I and other books on language, Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies lacks an index. So it’s often harder to find information there than in other volumes, especially if you want an answer to a specific question instead of broad guidance. If you’re looking for a good grammar book, visit Patricia O’Conner’s site www.grammarphobia.com.
Published: March 2006
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.