The enforcement of grammar is a divisive issue. Many people stress the importance of using proper grammar, while others feel the rules are overly strict and old-fashioned. No matter where you fall on the love-hate scale, grammar is the backbone of language, and it makes it possible for others to learn how to speak and write.
In the third installment of our “6 Questions With” series, we spoke with Mignon Fogarty, creator of the Grammar Girl podcast, about starting a podcast way back in 2006, her personal views on grammar and why she thinks the differences between American and British English are “charming” and “delightful.”
1. Start by taking us back to the beginning. How did you become Grammar Girl, and where did your passion for the English language come from?
FOGARTY: Well, I’ve always been a writer. Even when I was a little girl, my mom would take me to the local library for writing classes that I always loved. I have an undergraduate degree in English, and I worked for my high school and college newspapers. Then I went on this strange detour where I went into a Ph.D. program in biology. I ended up dropping out with my Master’s degree and working as a technical writer and editor. It all looks very logical on paper because I did the English and then the science and then I became a science and technology writer. It wasn’t quite that well planned, but it worked out, and I had a great career as a technical writer and editor in Silicon Valley.
I’ve always loved technology, and I heard about this neat, new thing called podcasting and just wanted to give it a try. I realized that my editing clients were making the same mistakes over and over again in their writing, so I thought, “Maybe I’ll just do a quick take every week about writing,” and it really was just an idea that I had. I launched the podcast, and within six weeks it was at number two on iTunes. It just really took off, which was amazing to me because at the time science and technology podcasts were the most popular. There really weren’t a lot of writing podcasts back then, so I think being one of the first helped. Journalists loved that a writing podcast was popular so I started getting a lot of press, and it just never stopped. Within less than a year after I started, I was a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show as a grammar expert. I didn’t have any PR. I didn’t reach out to them; they just found me through my podcast.
2. That’s incredible! When it comes to grammar, do you consider yourself more of a descriptivist or a prescriptivist?
FOGARTY: It’s funny — I feel like I walk the line between the two because I came to Grammar Girl as a copy editor, essentially, talking about the rules. And as a working editor, I was also looking at the rules every day, because nobody can remember everything. A lot of times I was just sharing what I was looking up myself, so that is very prescriptivist, but the longer I’ve been Grammar Girl and read about the history of language and the history of usage guides and things like that, I have become more descriptivist myself. When you look at things people objected to 100 or 200 years ago and how ridiculous they were, you just see how language changes over time, and it’s an exciting and fun thing, not a bad thing. Personally, I lean toward descriptivism, but I understand that people are often coming to me for prescriptive advice, so I give the prescriptive advice but try to provide a more descriptive context around it.
It’s fun and friendly and not judgmental… I just want to help people learn.
One thing that’s important to me about how Grammar Girl presents things to the world is that it’s fun and it’s friendly and it’s not judgmental. And I think, especially back when I started, a lot of the writing advice had a more snobby or judgmental tone, and I’m just there to help people. I just want to help people learn, so I think that really hit a nerve. People felt comfortable recommending it to their friends because it felt friendly.
3. More broadly, why do you think grammar is such an important component of language?
FOGARTY: When we talk about grammar, we’re talking about a much broader thing, usually. So we’re talking about punctuation and usage and grammar, and all the things that form what experts call Standard English. It’s sort of the language of formality, the language of business, the language of education. I think that it can be beneficial to speak in what’s considered Standard English and to write in Standard English because people can look down on you if you don’t. With that said, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with dialects, whether it’s people in the South saying “y’all,” or people who speak African-American English dropping the “to be” sometimes. Those are all dialects, and they are rich and wonderful and tell us about culture and hold us together as communities. So, I would not want to disparage all the rich, wonderful ways we have of communicating with each other, but I think having the ability to speak Standard English and know all the rules and not be perceived as making errors in academic and business environments is a really valuable skill.
4. I find it really interesting that you market your Quick and Dirty Tips to both native English speakers and people who speak English as a second language. Can you talk a little bit about those two audiences and how you serve each of them?
FOGARTY: Sometimes I struggle with serving both of them. One example is English idioms. People who are learning English have a hard time, especially with the idioms, because they’re not logical. But I think it can also be really fascinating for native speakers to understand why we have these interesting idioms. For example, I have a show on sports idioms coming out, and we talk about how when you start something too soon, you jump the gun, right? That comes from track and field, where you have the starting gun before the race, and if you go before the gun, you’ve jumped the gun. I think native English speakers can find this interesting, but for people who are learning English, it’s essential to learn all these idioms so they don’t feel lost and confused.
The other thing is that the questions English learners ask are often so much more difficult than the questions native speakers ask. Native English speakers will ask, “When do I use affect or effect?” or “Where do I use a comma?” And people who are learning English will ask, “Why do we say I’m in bed instead of on bed?” Or they’ll ask, “Why can I say I’m at a restaurant and in a restaurant?” Often the answer is just, there is no answer. It’s just the way it is; it’s idiomatic. Their questions are always so difficult, but I sympathize with them, trying to learn English.
I also find that people who are learning English, especially people who have learned English really well, tend to get more upset about people breaking the rules. I think when you’ve worked so hard to learn all the rules, you find it frustrating when native English speakers don’t follow them. Those are hard-won rules for them.
5. You talk a lot about learning, in general, and you have guest writers on your website writing about learning. I wonder if there’s any kind of advice you could give, in terms of learning new skills and learning a new language specifically. Are there any best practices you can think of, or ways to stay motivated when you’re trying to reach a goal?
FOGARTY: I think practicing as much as possible is the most important thing, as well as practicing in different ways. With the app, for one. I love using the Babbel app. I also find it useful to try to talk to native speakers and to write in the language. I need to write it myself, with my own hand, to learn it better, so I find that useful. In terms of motivation, I think there are all sorts of ways to stay motivated. I’m taking a trip to South America soon, and that is great motivation for me to keep up with my Spanish lessons. And then if you schedule time with a native speaker in your community, having that appointment every week makes you want to have made some progress since last time, so that keeps you going, too. I think creating a series of rewards and accountability is helpful for any type of learning.
6. On your podcast and in posts online, you’ve talked about some of the differences between American and British English you noticed during a trip to the United Kingdom. Do you have any favorite differences you can highlight?
FOGARTY: One that just makes me laugh every time I think about it is that in Britain, they talk about “traffic diversions.” When a road is closed, they have a diversion instead of a detour. I think of a diversion as maybe something they do in the movies while they’re pulling a heist. I think of a caper movie, and the diversion is the clown juggling on the sidewalk to distract the security guard. I didn’t have a camera with me, but I so wanted to take a picture of the diversion sign, and I was tempted to throw coins on the sidewalk to try to create a diversion for people. I just think that it’s delightful that the language has evolved differently in different countries, and even though we speak the same language, there are so many subtle differences. I always find them terribly charming. I had this little notebook in my back pocket, and every time I’d see something, I would pull out a pen and scribble down the interesting word that wasn’t quite like what we would use. Another one was “caravan” instead of an RV, a recreational vehicle. It seemed as though they call RVs “caravans,” and that sounds so romantic to me. The caravans sound exciting. It was delightful. I just love learning about words and other languages, whether it’s Spanish or German or just another variation of English.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Click here to read the full transcript.
Editor’s Note: Babbel has advertised on the Grammar Girl podcast.