I just got back from a Saturday afternoon grammar workshop for editors, hosted by the Society of Editors (SA) and led by the impressive Dr Margaret Cargill of the University of Adelaide. Yes I know, Saturday. But I’m dedicated like that.
Margaret provided a lot of handy grammar tips (grammatical tips?) and it was pretty engaging stuff. And, of course, any room full of editing types will always find topics to talk about, whether it’s the art and science of comma placement or the pitfalls of trying to convince a client they’re wrong when they ‘just know they’re right’. We all know that grammar provides the good bones for writing, and we can all think of workable strategies for talking clients through grammatical issues, even if we don’t always win the argument – sorry, productive discussion.
But what are we really aiming for when we talk about an ‘unimpeachable knowledge of grammar’? Is it practical or even possible to aim for this most hallowed of editing benchmarks when the contexts we’re publishing content in are changing the language we use and the ways we use it? Is there an approaching ‘apostrophe catastrophe’ as one Adelaide op piece stated last week? I’d say definitely not to that last question – and, probably, what’s an apostrophe catastrophe when it’s at home? – but as an editor, I also have a vested interest in grammatical standards being upheld, even if the standards change beyond all recognition.
For my part, when I want grammar inspiration (sorry: grammatical, grammatical) my guilty pleasure is Kingsley Amis’s The King’s English. I’ve kept a copy with me since I was a student, and back then, it was pretty much my only reading on grammar. I find that, although he may have been a dinosaur in some ways, Kingsley’s last book still provides lots of good arguments for/against uses and abuses of language, and he certainly knows how to use an apostrophe. But more than that, he makes me smile even when he’s indulging his inner grammar dictator. I like that he somehow seems to know that it’s his last chance to get his word in. He gives unrestricted vent to all his (sometimes petty, sometimes well founded) peeves about words, phrases, the media… The internet would have blown his mind, if he had stuck around to do much worrying about it.
In my working life, I know all too well the core references that I need to check if I want ‘the rules’. I can usually pull out the evidence I need to demonstrate to a client or author why what I’m suggesting will fix the problem I’ve spotted. And that does the job just fine. But what I need is an inspiring resource that tells me why I should care as much as I do about what people do with their words – and, with all due respect to Kingsley, I think I’m about ready for a new inspiration.
If you’d like to recommend a resource that you use to help get your head around grammar or tricky word problems, I’d welcome reading suggestions.