“The Ultimate Writing Guide for Students” By Mignon Fogarty Scholastic, 282 pages, 2011
All writers need a demanding editor no matter how skilled and experienced they are as writers.
This is especially true of the book written by Professor Mignon Fogarty, self-designated “grammar girl” who teaches in the journalism school at the University of Nevada, Reno.
To begin with, the book is poorly written and two-thirds longer than it needs to be. It is too cutesy, school girlish and even childish. It is repetitious. The titles of topics are sometimes wrong and pretentious. The book is loaded with pop grammar quizzes. It is packed with this kind of silly heading: “THE COLON: I CAN’T WAIT TO READ WHAT COMES NEXT.”
The grammar girl is wrong when she suggests this word arrangement: “I loved the movie, said Squiggly.” It should be subject predict. (Squiggly said.)
The commaitis here is woeful. It may be considered grammatically correct to write “he ate apples, peaches, and oranges,” as Fogarty advises, but the second comma is unnecessary. Only stuffed-shirt newspapers like the New York Times and old-fashioned editors insist on the second comma. Ditto: “Squiggly ran to the forest, but Aardvark chased squirrels.” The comma is unneeded.
Should you capitalize the first word after a colon? Fogarty says, it’s a matter of style. As a grammarian she should be more emphatic, not saddling everyone with stodgy Times style.
“Squiggly was fixated on something: chocolate.” She says a semi-colon should replace the colon. She’s wrong. A semi-colon is obsolete and should be rarely used except in a long series of phrases.
The book gets tedious with constant explanatory sentences starring Squiggly and Aardvark. Like nearly all writers, speakers and lecturers, she grossly overuses “of courses” when the of course is obvious. (“Of course, a participial phrase describes the closest noun.”) We get Squiggly finding green Easter eggs with a kid’s “yuck” appended to Fogarty’s example.
With all its many faults, the book does have good advice for students and veteran writers as well. Examples:
• Better to start a sentence with a figure rather than write the cumbersome: “Twelve thousand eight hundred and forty-two” as is required in “correct” grammar.
• Write WHO rather than the unnecessary W.H.O.-style used by the Times. All such anachronisms should be spelled out on first reference: World Health Organization. Exception to the rule: the well-known FBI and CIA.
• Use explanation marks sparingly. “With the explanation point, less is certainly more,” Fogarty writes. Certainly is unneeded in the architect Mies van der Rohe maxim, “Less is more.”
• Use of hyphen is essential between compound adjectives: “Their relationship is long-term.”
• Join a prefix to a word that must be capitalized: anti-American, T-shirt and 100-foot.
• “I couldn’t care less” is correct, not “I could care less.”
Editors don’t rout clichés that appear every day in newspapers. Everything is an icon or iconic. Columnists too often write the word “well” as in ”Scott Feldman is the reincarnation of Bob Gibson without, well, cheating.” Ever since the “Casablanca” movie we often see printed the cliché “round up the usual suspects.” Another dreadful cliché after every shooting spree or disaster: horrific.
Critical editors are particularly needed for books written by academics. The authors might be brilliant scholars but hey have never learned to write.
As a matter of fact, demanding editors are needed for every book published. So all editors might consider getting the Fogarty book despite its many foibles.
Jake Highton is an emeritus journalism professor from the University of Nevada, Reno.