It’s not often that I praise a grammar* book aimed at a mass audience. Many times, such books are light on accurate explanations and heavy on subjective style advice that produces tortured prose. Eats, Shoots and Leaves and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style come to mind (at least the latter admits it’s a stylebook).
I was thrilled, though, to read Grammar for People Who Hate Rules: Killer Tips from the Ruthless Editor by Kathleen A. Watson. Watson has collected 57 short language-related tips meant to help laypeople (those who aren’t professional writers and editors) raise the quality of their writing and speaking. Despite the target audience, this is a worthy guide for copyeditors and other language professionals.
The book draws on Watson’s decades of writing and editing in both business and academics to highlight issues seen frequently in these industries and offer quick, useful solutions. It covers such issues as passive voice, dangling modifiers, capitalization of regions and directions, individual and joint possession, and suspended hyphenation.
One of my biggest pet peeves of grammar books for laypeople is when they don’t clarify what kind of writing their advice will produce or what their influencers are. Closely following the advice in Garner’s Modern English Usage, for example, will result in precise, often awkward prose reminiscent of legal writing.
Watson, however, explains in her welcome note that writers and speakers are judged on their use of language. Following her tips, she says, will help her readers produce the expected Standard English, “modeling the way educated people use language.” She also notes in the introduction that her usage tips often follow advice from The Associated Press Stylebook, which helps readers’ expectations.
Since the tips average just two pages each, the explanations don’t go into a lot of detail. As a professional editor, I find it hard to tell when information is too brief to be valuable to laypeople. However, as a professional, I found the information a sufficient review for making editorial decisions or just reviewing common errors. It’s what makes this book so helpful to editors. If after reading a tip, it’s not enough information, you know to consult a more comprehensive reference work.
All in all, I found Grammar for People Who Hate Rules a great little resource for copyeditors and other language professionals.
* In books meant for laypeople, grammar is often used broadly to mean not only grammar but also usage, spelling, syntax, and so on. This holds true for Watson’s book.