A Q&A with Mignon Fogarty aka Grammar GirlJune 12, 2013 in College Tips
Since 2006, Grammar Girl's been tackling the complicated, convoluted, and confusing nuances of the English language with infectious enthusiasm on her popular column and podcast. She's passionate about punctuation, obsessed with learning new words, and in love with our weird little language – warts and all.
In this interview, Fogarty shares Grammar Girl's simple beginnings, tips for improving your grammar, and why studying grammar is especially important for college students.
Q: What's your background and how did you get started as Grammar Girl?
A: I have a BA in English from the University of Washington and an MS in biology from Stanford. I was a science and health writer and editor before I became Grammar Girl.
I started the Grammar Girl podcast and website in the summer of 2006. When I started writing professionally, I found that even though I had a degree in English, I didn't know a lot of the nitpicky rules about writing. I had been trained in literature and journalism, not style and usage, so I spent a lot of time looking things up in stylebooks. Later, I was doing a lot of editing for biotech companies, and I found that my clients were making the same mistakes in their writing too. They weren't excited about my feedback—they just wanted me to fix their papers—but I wanted to help people write better. I started the Grammar Girl podcast with the idea that it would be easier for people to learn if I covered one simple topic each week in a short, fun, easygoing format. At the time, there was a lot of grammar and usage information available, but much of it had a haughty or intimidating tone that turned off the people who needed help the most.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your readers.
A: I've heard from fans who are truck drivers, seamstresses, CEOs, writers, retirees, and school children in China and the Philippines. Teachers all the way from second grade to college tell me they use my material in class. From our analytics, I can see that people from almost every country visit the website and listen to the podcast. It blows my mind every time I think about it—that people in places such as Tanzania, Uruguay, and Uzbekistan are using my material.
Q: What's your favorite thing about your job?
A: I love doing research and learning new things.
Q: What is a challenge that you face as someone who writes about grammar?
A: One big challenge is that many people have strongly held misconceptions about grammar. For example, many people were taught “rules” in grade school that experts say are myths: people were taught not to split an infinitive or end a sentence with a preposition, but experts say those things are fine. I'm often battling those misconceptions and trying to find balance between giving people the most accurate information, but also helping them realize when it's important to follow fake or outdated rules so they don't get in trouble with someone who still holds mistaken beliefs. It's also frustrating when I've spent hours researching a topic and I list all my sources and then someone rants that I'm wrong because their grade school teacher told them something different in 1960.
Q: What topics do you most enjoy writing about?
A: Since I've been doing this for more than six years, and I've covered all the common questions many times, I now relish the more obscure and historical topics such as what the editors of Webster's Third Dictionary were thinking when they introduced the new label “often attributive” for nouns and what it means that French was the primary language in England for about 200 years. I always have my audience in mind though and try to present even the obscure and historical topics in a way that makes them useful.
Q: Why is good grammar so important for college students?
A: College is the time to stretch yourself, to grow as much as you can. You'll never have as much time and motivation to learn and practice grammar as you do when you're in college, so take advantage of that! Learning the major writing rules and where to find answers when you have questions in the future are skills that will help you shine for the rest of your life.
Q: What's the best way for someone to improve their grammar?
A: Becoming mindful of your writing is the most important thing. Instead of rewriting a sentence to avoid a word or a construction you don't know, look it up! Read a fun book or website about grammar. Subscribe to an e-mail newsletter so you don't even have to think about it—grammar tips will come to you automatically. (Of course, I offer all those things through Grammar Girl, but other people do too.) If you make good writing a priority, and take the time to work on it and look things up, you will improve.
Q: Any other projects right now?
A: I've spent the last year or so working on an iPad game called Grammar Pop in which the player matches words with parts of speech. It's a blast and it should be out in a couple of months. Keep an eye out for it.
Photo credit: Flickr/Caleb Roenigk.