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Books: Grammatical laughter at your Summit County Library

DAN TAYLORspecial to the daily

Rare indeed is the sentence containing both the noun “grammar” and the verb “laugh,” but our Summit County Library actually has an excellent selection of books on grammar that will make us laugh out loud. Seriously. Let’s head over to the 400s in the adult non-fiction section, where we will find scholarly books on linguistics and foreign languages, dictionaries, and so forth, as well as-voila!- books with funny titles about grammar, e.g., “Comma Sense,” which contains a chapter entitled “Comma Sutra.” I kid you not.Commas are crucial to both grammar and humor. If a bear walks into a cafe and eats shoots and leaves, its hunger has presumably been sated, but if that same bear eats, shoots, and leaves, then someone needs to dial 911. That little joke became the title of a best seller, “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” by Lynn Truss. One modernist author omitted the serial or Oxford comma – that’s the one before the “and” in a series: a, b, and c (unless the “and” is an ampersand as above) – from his acknowledgements and thanked “[his] parents, the Pope and Mother Theresa,” thereby transforming a series into an appositive. Traditionalists like “The Chicago Manual of Style” and yours truly argue that the serial comma’s presence prevents any misunderstanding whatsoever, and so it does. Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s “The New Well-Tempered Sentence” reprises the stunning sketches and extraordinary examples of her earlier classics “The Well-Tempered Sentence” and “The Transitive Vampire.” Patricia T. O’Conner’s “Woe is I” is a genuine treasure, clearly written and decidedly funny, and it has a companion volume for younger grammarphobes. In his whimsical and learned “Let a Simile Be Your Umbrella” William Safire takes on all manner of grammatical gaffes and rhetorical falderal in public, especially political, discourse. This book may be a bit too clever for most of us, but it is still a good read. Even Bill Bryson, arguably the best travel writer on the planet, gets in on the grammatical action. He has edited two very fine dictionaries with wit and wisdom and has also written both a lighthearted history of American English entitled “Made in America” and a rollicking but linguistically sound account of how English got to be what it is today, namely, “The Mother Tongue.”Some titles require subtitles. “Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary” makes one pause before breathing a sigh of relief upon encountering the subtitle “Or why can’t anybody spell.” We’ll have the same reaction to “Armed Gunmen, True Facts, and Other Ridiculous Nonsense: A Compiled Compendium of Repetitive Redundancies.” The subtitle to Janis Bell’s “clean, well-lighted sentences” – yes, that’s the uncapitalized title – is “A Guide to Avoiding the Most Common Errors in Grammar and Punctuation.” Despite its arresting title, it’s one of the best handbooks to come along in years.Such books have become a veritable cottage industry in the English-speaking world because the authors address what is inordinately complex, fascinating, and uniquely human-language-not from a stuffy prescriptive perspective but with an eye and an ear for the humorous. We learn and laugh at one and the same time. It’s serious spoofing, what the ancient Greeks called “spoudogeloios.” Although I shall always be grateful to Miss Henkenberns, my eighth grade English teacher, for teaching me to parse and diagram sentences, my fellow students and I would undoubtedly have learned more had she occasionally cracked a smile instead of a whip. So let’s share a laugh or at least a smile as we recall that he who puts his best foot forward is no grammarian.Editor’s note: The editor had to tie her hands behind her back so as not to remove Taylor’s Oxford commas throughout this column, as Associated Press style demands deleting the little buggers. We’re not sure what newspapers had against Oxford but guess the trend might have developed with lazy typesetters who didn’t want to place an extra metal piece into their already long line of letters. (Sure, they claim it’s to budget space on the page, but, really: How much room does a little comma save?)


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