The Greatest Gatsby

Greatest GatsbyLiterary editors of both The Australian and Sydney Morning Herald newspapers commented about words and grammar in their columns this weekend.

The Greatest Gatsby: A Visual Book of Grammar (Viking, Penguin) is a very clever way to help everyone understand words and grammar. Tobhy Riddle is one of Australia’s notable picture book illustrators, with works such as Nobody Owns the Moon, My Uncle’s Donkey, Irving the Magician, Unforgotten, The Singing Hat and The Great Escape from City Zoo.

He uses his highly developed and creative design skills to explain English grammar in a motivating and comprehensible way. He believes the old adage that ‘a picture tells a thousand words’ and uses an inspired combination of his own illustrations, late nineteenth century photographs and other artwork in an uncluttered format with plenty of white space.

I particularly like the ‘English Words Network’, which sets out the parts of speech, such as nouns and conjunctions, like an urban railway line map. Riddle then spends time looking at each of these.

The title, ‘The Greatest Gatsby’ comes from a section on comparing adjectives. ‘The Great Gatsby’ is a descriptive adjective, ‘The Greater Gatsby’ is a comparative adjective and ‘The Greatest Gatsby’ is the superlative. The illustrated Gatsbys (debonair men in suits) are shown in increasing height to match their descriptions. ‘Gatsbys’ are also used to demonstrate ‘articles’ such as ‘the great Gatsby’ and ‘a great Gatsby’.

My Uncle's Donkey

The section, ‘Word classes in action’ culminates in an intriguing picture of an old man sleeping. Each word in the accompanying sentence is analysed visually and with the words seen here in brackets: ‘The (definite article) old (descriptive adjective) man (common noun) slept (past tense verb) soundly (how adverb) outside (preposition) his (possessive pronoun) home (common noun)’.

Riddle tackles the tricky and often misused ‘me or I’, ‘it’s or its’, ‘lie or lay’, ‘that or which’, the active and passive voice, and showcases the clever spelling of ‘fish’ as ‘ghoti’.

Affixes are shown visually to make it clear how words are built up. An example is the word ‘help’. It is shown at the top of a page representing the carriage of a train. Underneath is the word ‘helpful’, with the suffix, ‘-ful’, as another carriage. Under that is ‘unhelpful’, with the prefix and suffix each filling a carriage. The bottom row shows the word ‘unhelpfully’ filling four carriages.

Word SpyThis book is an excellent resource for a wide range of people, including schools and adult English classes. It could be used in conjunction with Tohby Riddle and Ursula Dubosarsky’s awarded The Word Spy and The Return of the Word Spy.

The book this post features—and therefore this post—is not safe for kids or work…

The Elements of F*cking StyleThe book this post features—and therefore this post—is not safe for kids. It’s also not safe for work.

The book’s about invaluable subject matter: grammar and punctuation. But it’s delivered in a far-from-the-traditionally-dry fashion.

Penned by Chris Baker and Jacob Hansen, the co-authors of a similarly entitled blog The F*cking Word of the Day, The Elements of F*cking Style book delivers style tips through accessible, sass-filled language and dirty—and therefore eminently memorable—examples.

As a writer and editor who spends a good portion of her time trying to commit grammar and punctuation rules to memory and then apply them with some authority and consistency*, this book taught me moar useful stuff than all the manuals currently lining my shelves combined. As Baker and Hansen point out, the guides we use (and continue to inflict on ourselves and others) are woefully outdated.

For example, seminal text The Elements of Style, which has sold more copies than Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code collectively, was first published in 1918. That was, they note, a time when words such as ‘gay’ had entirely different meanings from which they do today. Yet the manual hasn’t been overly updated to reflect our new era’s meanings and our less formal, more interactive means of engaging with texts.

You may not have a taste for trucker talk as I do, but Elements of F*cking Style is undeniably unforgettable. Which is precisely the point. As Baker and Hansen note, it’s easier to recite lines from Pulp Fiction than from King Lear. I’ll choose memorable over I might be offended every single time.

The book is slimline, meaning it’s both concise and less intimidating than the tome-like style guides we’re familiar with. I wish it existed when I was starting out. And I wish university courses, schools, and beyond would make it required reading, conservative, easily offended lobby groups be damned.

The Elements of F*cking Style features fantastic subject headings/areas, including ‘Commas are f*cking fun’, ‘Words Your Bound to F&ck Up’, ‘A colon is more than an organ that gets cancer’, and ‘Use strong, definite language in your writing. Make that sentence your b*tch’.

Most of the examples provided by the authors aren’t safe for publication on a family friendly blog such as this, so I’ll stick to mentioning a few of the more neutral ones. This includes the advice to get someone else to proofread your work for you as ‘even the clinically insane make sense to themselves’. Or this one:

Reading a paragraph that jumps from past to present and back again is a f*cking drain, isn’t it? As a reader it’s difficult to read a paragraph like this and not be p*ssed off at the writer. Couldn’t he or she keep it together for a few goddamned sentences?

My favourite part, though, is the end where Baker and Hansen write: ‘Holy sh*t, you made it to the end of a book about f*cking grammar.’ It’s a fair call, but after patting myself on the back, I considered that the real heroes are Baker and Hansen for making the book so easy to read I’d made it to the end before I realised.

Sure, I’m a writer and editor and this is the kind of book I should reach the end of. But have I ever read more than the specific entry I need, much less then book it its entirety, of any other grammar guide?

I’ve done that with precisely zero. Based on the grammar crimes committed daily in text messages and on social media, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say the number of non-word-nerd people who’ve actually read a style manual is equally low.

‘Grammar isn’t a sexy subject,’ Baker and Hansen write in their introduction. With that, I’d wholeheartedly agree. But with Elements of F*cking Style they’ve at least made explanations of it and its complicated quirks clear and helpful. This is definitely going to be the go-to guide for me when I next need a refresher (or when people as for a recommendation for where to learn our language’s finer points). And with Christmas around the corner, this may be appearing in a few people’s stockings…


*And I’m bound to have mucked something up in this here post—I’m human, I’m tired, I don’t have someone with fresh eyes currently available to proofread my work. If you spot a typo or some punctuation or grammar ineptitude by me, please feel free to flag it in the comments below.

Can Editors Keep Up With Technology?

An editorial clarification last week at The New York Times and the reaction to it has made me wonder if it’s possible for editors to keep up with how quickly language is changing in the face of technological development.

I had suggested that outside of ornithological contexts, “tweet” should still be treated as colloquial rather than as standard English. It can be used for special effect, or in places where a colloquial tone is appropriate, but should not be used routinely in straight news articles.

The reaction to the Times‘s editorial statement – a decision which would ordinarily have come under no scrutiny whatsoever – was intense and harsh. People sneered at the idea of the so-called ‘guardians of the English language’ for daring to pronounce on what should or should not be considered ‘standard’ English.

I can see both sides of this argument. As a writer and reader, I hate the idea that some kind of arbitrary standard should limit the way people can express themselves (though to be fair, I don’t think whether or not The New York Times uses the word ‘tweet’ is of that much importance). On the other hand, as an editor, standardised decisions like this make my job much easier.

Yahoo News, swiftly becoming a trusted source of news as well as an aggregator, has recently released a stylebook in the vein of the much celebrated (and much despised) Associated Press stylebook. They are selling printed versions of it, but it also exists as a website for free. But I have to wonder, is there really a need for a resource like this when we have Google? The Yahoo stylebook has a fairly comprehensive FAQ, including questions about standard spelling and SEO. SEO stands for ‘search engine optimisation’. SEO is basically the umbrella term for all the tricks a web developer uses for getting their website to the top of Google search results. A part of this is ensuring that the standard spelling used for a word throughout a website – particularly if it’s a key word – is the spelling most likely to be used by people searching on Google.

This raises an interesting question. If Google is (among many other things) a global and aggregated digest of common spelling and usage, then is a stylebook even necessary anymore? Google has already become my go-to source for standard spelling, hyphenation or spacing of a word that doesn’t appear in the dictionary. ‘How many pages are on Google?’ is often my first question when a fellow editor asks me for the standard way of writing something. As books are increasingly digitised and searchable, is it more important to be visible – or technically correct? Is there, in fact, even such a thing as ‘technically correct’?

Language is a tricky thing. There is a balance between authority and democracy to be struck, and the internet is tipping that balance toward democracy. It’s something that I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, the strength of the English language is its fluidity – it can change and adapt to the changes and adaptations of its speakers. On the other hand, the pedant in me screams at the idea that someone can start using ‘literally’ just to emphasise their point. But what if Google says it’s OK? Does that make it right? What do you think?