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Grammar Girl assists Minnesota-nice armchair editors

Mignon Fogarty
Mignon Fogarty

If there's one thing that likely distinguished Grammar Girl's Minneapolis stop from the rest of her national book tour, it's the prolonged discussion about reconciling Minnesota Nice with Fastidious Grammarian. Being precise but not persnickety.

Last night's audience, by and large, appeared to know their grammar. The vast majority indicated familiarity with Schoolhouse Rock, which prompted Grammar Girl to deem the crowd of 50 a "good audience." Few had grammatical questions. What they didn't know was how to correct the linguistic errors of their friends, relatives and colleagues.


Mignon Fogarty can relate to their quandary: The 40-something technical writer from Reno, Nev., has made a point to dispense friendly language advice in her top-ranked podcast. Being saucy and agitated, in the spirit of Lynne Truss, is not her style. Rather, USA Today says, Fogarty is "authoritative but warm. Kind of like the sixth-grade teacher you wish you had."

So when a tan, bespectacled woman in the second row asked about mentioning a "fairly major semicolon problem" in the cover letter of a student she had hired, Fogarty readily offered a tactful response, bookended in praise. Remember, Grammar Girl said, you'd be doing the student "a favor" by bringing up the grammatical blunder.

"I'd want to know," chimed in a petite brunette wedged in a side row.

A middle-aged woman inquired about a friend's "beautiful poem" that used "further" rather than "farther," which denotes measurable distances. Was she obliged to point it out? Could poetic license override this mistake? (Yes, Fogarty said, much to the woman's relief.)

Delicate inquiries
Then there was Emily Hunter, 23, a pretty marketing intern from Woodbury who pre-ordered "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" on Amazon for her family members. Getting the books signed provided her with a good excuse to give them the books, Hunter told Fogarty, who smiled, saying, "a little passive-aggressive gift."

Then there was the bold question I laced with a humble preface. "Tell me," I said, as we walked out of Magers & Quinn, "because I'm still learning." And then I asked Fogarty about a line on her book's back cover, which reads: "Written with the same wit, warmth, and accessibility that draws people to the podcasts, Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing covers grammar conundrums that can confound even the best writers."

My question: why draws, a singular verb, for a plural subject (wit, warmth, and accessibility)?

"Hm." Fogarty examined the sentence, explaining that the verb worked because each subject was singular. Then a portly, bearded man said "draws" would be OK if the subjects were separated by "or," but that with "and" it should be "draw." 

Fogarty reconsidered.

"I think it's wrong," she said. "I'll have to ask my copy editor."

"It's wrong," the man insisted.

He was from Lake Geneva, Wis.


FAST FACTS on GRAMMAR GIRL

• To meet the demand, Fogarty recently increased the frequency of her podcast from weekly to semiweekly.

• Having steadily surged, the "Grammar Girl" podcast now has "sort of leveled off," she said, being downloaded 100,000 to 150,000 times a week (and more than 14 million times total).

• She is pleasantly surprised by the cross section of her fans. The largest demographic, according to a listener survey, is 25 to 45.

• Having created the podcast for two years now, she's not "running out" of ideas, but rather, "running deeper." (Translation: She's defining grammar more broadly and using guest writers to bring in fresh approaches.)

• The other podcasts in The Quick and Dirty Network she founded do well "for their categories," but the grammar podcast, ranked No. 1 by iTunes, leads by a long shot.


Grammar Girl's indispensible guides

1. "Common Errors in English Usage" by P. Brians
2. "The Chicago Manual of Style"
3. "Garner's Modern American Usage" by B. Garner
4. "The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual"
5. "Punctuate It Right!" by H. Shaw

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Comments (4)

I agree, Eileen! It sounds like Mignon has made inroads in some schools, but it could be a good addition here.

Arlene, thanks for weighing in. Here's the scoop on commas before the conjunction "and." There are four scenarios to consider.

1.) If no subject follows AND, then no comma precedes it.
EX: I finished reading MinnPost and then called my friend.

2.) If the clauses joined by AND have the same subject, and they are closely related in meaning (the second being a logical result of the first), then don't use a comma before AND.
EX: I finished reading MinnPost and then I called my friend to urge her to become a member.

3.) If the clauses joined by AND have the same subject, but they are not closely related, then use a comma before AND.
EX: I finished reading MinnPost, and then I called my friend to discuss Justin Morneau.

4.) If the clauses joined by AND have different subjects - whether or not they are closely related - use a comma.
EX: I turned in this story, and then Roger edited it.

My comment refers to Grammar Girl.
I am a big fan of good grammar. I'd like to comment on the "argument" of whether she used the right verb draws instead of draw as some folks insisted is correct.
I think Grammar Girl is correct because her verb refers to the understood subject "The book". She begins the sentence with "Written with the same wit, warmth, and accountability...." The subject is not wit, warmth and accountability. It is "The book"....therefore the verb draws is correct.
But, this brings up another question. Is it correct to put a comma before the conjunction "and"?

I'm going to buy one of these books. Maybe I'll buy several.
Thank you,
Arlene Clapp Gumingo

Fogarty's book should be mandatory in Minnesota's schools. People will learn that it is improper to say, "I seen a movie yesterday." (...Just one of my many grammar pet peeves)

The subject of the sentence may be "the book" (understood), but the real issue is the clause, "that draws people to the podcasts." The subject of the clause is the relative pronoun "that," which stands in for the plural "wit, warmth, and accessibility." So "draw" is the better choice.