Word Matters Podcast

How Language Evolves (with Grammar Girl)

Word Matters, Episode 55

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We're joined this week by Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, to celebrate the 15th anniversary of her show Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

Download the episode here.


Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, we talk with Grammar Girl. I'm Emily Brewster, and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media on each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

We might, as a company, be America's longest-running dictionary makers, but as a language podcast, we are a flash in the pan compared to our guest today. We're joined this week by our friend, Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl, whose podcast, Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, just celebrated its 15th anniversary. Here's our talk with Mignon.

Peter Sokolowski: We love words, obviously we love language, and we love grammar. And we also love Grammar Girl, who is Mignon Fogarty, our longtime friend, and also one of the most enduring voices online for good advice about language. And she's marking a huge anniversary this year. In addition to her New York Times bestseller called Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips About Writing, she's also had the Grammar Girl podcast, now for 15 years. And she's also our guest today to talk about all things grammar, all things language. Mignon, welcome to Word Matters.

Mignon Fogarty: Thank you. I am so excited to be here with you, some of my favorite word people, and I'm just thrilled that you have your own podcast now. Congratulations.

Peter Sokolowski: Well, you started it all. Nobody had a podcast when you had a podcast. I'm not sure I knew what it was.

Mignon Fogarty: I know. I was a very early podcast listener. And I started Grammar Girl back in 2006 and spent half my time explaining what a podcast was to people.

Peter Sokolowski: Well, you would have to, absolutely. And so, can you tell us a little bit about how that happened? I mean, how did you come to this great idea? Also, how did you specialize in grammar as your subject?

Mignon Fogarty: Yeah. Well, I did science first, actually. I was a working science writer and editor at the time. And I adore technology and gadgets. So, I had heard about this new thing called podcasting, and I started a science podcast. And I did that for about eight months. I had a co-host and we had on guests, which was much harder back then. And it was taking me about 20 hours a week and it just wasn't sustainable. But I had fallen in love with podcasting and I wanted to keep my toe in the pool.

So, I noticed that my editing clients were making the same mistakes over and over again. And I was constantly looking up all the little rules that you need to know as a working writer and editor. Every day I was opening my AP Stylebook and my Chicago Manual of Style and coming up with memory tricks to try to help myself remember all these rules. And I thought, well, maybe someone would appreciate just a little podcast, a quick and dirty tip on how to write better, how to use a semicolon, the difference between which versus that, and so on.

And so, because I was already podcasting, I quickly jotted down three ideas in a coffee shop on the beach in Santa Cruz, California, while I was on vacation. Got those three episodes out just thinking it was my fun hobby. I mean, I was serious about it, but I didn't have huge ambitions. And within six weeks it was number two at iTunes. It just rocketed up the charts. And I kept thinking, well, this can't last. And 15 years later here we are. It did last.

Emily Brewster: That's fantastic. And that's how Grammar Girl was born.

Mignon Fogarty: Right? Yeah. And so, then I've produced a weekly show ever since. And in the beginning it was a minute-and-a-half to two minutes long, and it really was one quick and dirty tip on the mechanics of writing, because I was a working copy editor at the time. And over the years it's evolved into a much bigger show. So, now we have two or three segments per show. I have guest writers. It tends to be in the 15-minute range. I still do those mechanics kind of posts, but I also do a lot of, wow, isn't language neat kind of posts or segments, and that keeps it fun and interesting, too. They're always stories to tell about language and I love that.

Peter Sokolowski: So, we want to talk a little bit about language also, because that's what we do, and we want to ask some questions of you. So Emily, you had an idea about engaging Mignon on some of the ways that she's changed.

Emily Brewster: So, I've been a Grammar Girl fan for a long time, and I really appreciate the perspective. You're always speaking from a very informed point of view about what is established, much in the way that we at Merriam-Webster do. Right? We talk not necessarily what our own preference is, which is, in fact, how most usage guides used to be written.

You talk about what is useful to copy editors, which is what is not going to distract the reader, what is going to be the clearest method for imparting this information to your reader. But I'm really curious in that 15-year span if there are usage issues, grammar issues, that you have noticed shift, and if you now have a different position on them because the language has shifted in that period of time.

Mignon Fogarty: Yeah. The biggest one right off the top of my head is the singular they. So, fifteen years ago, I think the first time I wrote about the topic, I advised people to use he or she in professional writing. Back then it was still considered wrong to just use he as a gender neutral pronoun, but I advised he or she even while noting that it sounded clunky, but it was probably the best solution we had at that time. And definitely write around it if you can and just use plurals. That's the easiest thing.

And I have been astonished and pleased with how quickly attitudes have changed to allow writers, professional writers, to use the singular they. Pretty much every major style guide now says it's fine to varying degrees and in different circumstances. The AP Stylebook is still pretty adamant about writing around it if you can. But they say if someone requests it or if it makes more sense in your writing, it's fine.

And my feeling is that things in language don't usually change that fast. I feel like change comes in decades, not single years. And so, that's been a surprise. But then also something I've had to fight is that over time it's become more of that as an insider as an outsider.

So, in the beginning, I was alongside the listener saying, "Here's what we're learning today. Here's what the style guides say." And today, I'm so steeped in what they say that I forget the perspective of people who aren't quite as steeped as I am, and I have to bring myself back.

And with the singular they, my editor was talking to me last month and said, "Well, maybe you should do something on the singular they again." I'm like, "I've done this so many times. Everybody knows it's fine. It's closed. The book is closed on that. I'm bored out of my mind with the singular they. Let's not do it."

And then coincidentally that week I had three sudden reminders that that is not true. And some people, it's a brand new thing they've never heard of, and a lot of people are getting pushback from their editors when they try to use it. And so, it was a real wake up call that I still need to listen to the people who aren't quite as steeped in it as I am when I pick my topics,

Emily Brewster: That's very interesting. That shift in the acceptance of singular they, it's been so dramatic and it's so recent. Really interesting transformation.

Mignon Fogarty: And it's so useful.

Emily Brewster: Oh, it is.

Mignon Fogarty: It makes so much sense.

Ammon Shea: One of the things I was curious about, because you have this huge body of knowledge of what the current trends are in terms of editing, are there any accepted style book prescriptions of what you think, oh my God, that's just such a ridiculous thing? You reminded me when you were talking about the AP Stylebook is that until 2018, AP Stylebook insisted that two objects must be in motion before they collide. A moving train cannot collide with a stopped train.

And they took that out because everybody that came across it was kind of like, come on. If your car collides with a fire hydrant, the fire hydrant doesn't have to be in motion. And so, they finally changed it. But every once in a while, I know there are other prescriptions out there that have not changed even though pretty much everybody agrees that we use them otherwise. Do you have any favorite ones?

Mignon Fogarty: Yeah, that collide one was ridiculous. The one that people have been insisting on that I absolutely refuse is to say run the gantlet instead of run the gauntlet. AP Stylebook has insisted on that for years that a gantlet is an ordeal and a gauntlet is a glove. You throw down the glove with a gauntlet.

It's really just because I was raised saying you run the gauntlet. I had never heard gantlet until I found it in some stylebook saying I should use this other word, and I thought, well, that is ridiculous. So, that is one small place where my opinion has trumped what the style guides say.

Emily Brewster: If it's not confusing for the listener or for the reader, then it's actually doing its job. It's doing the job in the language. It is communicating the meaning. For the small set of people who make this distinction between them, it's actually distracting. So, that's one of the things that Grammar Girl usage maven has to do is pick out what is going to distract the reader and what percentage of readers will be distracted by this.

Mignon Fogarty: Right. There are a lot of rules that I follow that I don't necessarily agree with, but I do it because I don't want to cause distraction. I don't want to get complaints. So, I think the battle is completely lost on begs the question. When I wrote one of my last books, I tried to find an example of it being used properly in the news, and I went through hundreds before I found one. The general consensus is that it means "raises the question."

Now I never use it that way because I know it distracts a lot of people. And that's what I do in the Grammar Girl podcast. I say, here's what's happening with this usage, it's changing. But I still think today that if you use it, it's going to be more distracting than not. And it's easy enough to come up with an alternative, like raises the question.

Emily Brewster: Right. I wrote about begs the question not too long ago, also, and had the same experience of having a very difficult time finding any published evidence of the historical use of the phrase.

Ammon Shea: One of my favorite kinds of complaints, because we get complaints about language all the time, is when we often hear people say, "I hate this particular misuse of a word. Everyone does it." And it ignores the fact that if everyone does it, it is no longer a misuse. It may be an ungainly way for language to change, but it is an entirely legitimate form of linguistic shift. And I've always admired that you take such a kind of level-headed, common sensical approach to this as a usage guide that you are not, in any way, dogmatic about usage. You're entirely about clarity. And in essence, it's always been so useful. I check your site so many times.

Mignon Fogarty: Thank you. It was interesting you brought that up because I did a TEDx talk a few years ago, and they asked me, what is the one thing you want to communicate to the world about language? And oh, that was a tough question. And I decided my theme ended up being we vote, we vote on language, and that we vote with our usage. If everybody starts using a word a certain way, give it a couple of decades and that's what it means.

Peter Sokolowski: That common sense approach I bet is surprising to a lot of people who expect from you, and frankly from us, hard and fast rules. I want to know the answer. And often it has to do with things like taste or tradition or usage, none of which are grammar or rules. They're something outside of that. They're something cultural, almost. And preferences are not the same thing as rules. So, that, I think, is a refreshing part of what you do.

Mignon Fogarty: I am sympathetic, because having been an editor, you just want an answer. Do I change this word or not in the document I'm working on? So, I like to run through all the options and the history. Ultimately, I try to give people my best recommendation.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be back after the break with more of our conversation with Mignon Fogarty of the Grammar Girl podcast. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin history or meaning of a word? Email us at Word Matters at m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word, available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

So what about split infinitives? That's one that everybody hears about.

Mignon Fogarty: It's so funny. There are a couple of things when people hear I'm Grammar Girl say, "Oh, don't split infinitives. Don't end a sentence with a preposition," and I'm not sure they even know what it means. It's like a panic response. Yeah, splitting infinitives, that's one thing that the AP Stylebook said was wrong for far longer than I would've expected. They didn't say it was wrong, but they advised you to avoid it when possible, and sometimes it's awkward. But I think native English speakers have a good sense of what sounds awkward and what doesn't. Often splitting an infinitive makes a better sentence than not splitting an infinitive. So, for native English speakers, especially when that comes up, it's not a real rule. Just follow your ear.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. I think our modern way of communicating these things allows us to provide nuance that our forebears did not actually have. When you think about the grammar usage books that were written in the 19th century, they didn't provide nuance because they were constricted to a degree by just the realities of publishing. And also culturally, this understanding like, no, no I'm going to give you the right answer here.

But in some of the first usage books, the author even makes a point of saying, "This is my preference. This is what I think sounds better." And then that was taken and applied as an absolute rule by people who then used that book to teach. And then things turned into these hard and fast rules instead of being acknowledged as an individual's preference.

And now you can have a conversation about something. You can explain a lot about it. You don't have to just say, "Do this one thing." You can say, "Well, in this case, when you're speaking formerly you want to do this, or in any kind of formal writing you want to do this." But in truth, if it can be clear, you can shift your language around and make another choice in other contexts.

Mignon Fogarty: Right. And if you want an example of that, read the introduction to Strunk & White. So many people cite Strunk & White as rule of law. And you read the introduction and that's not how they were framing it at all.

Emily Brewster: That's right.

Peter Sokolowski: And I love the idea of voting with usage. I think that's really the perfect metaphor. It's the perfect model that we should use. One thing that comes to mind is that the old style books maybe were also referring to entry into a kind of club. Like if you speak this way, you are one of us. And language has always been used to divide every bit as much as to communicate and divide by class, divide by geography, divide by education, whatever.

And so, that kind of entrance into the club, the secret keys, all these shibboleths of language usage from a time when maybe literacy wasn't universal and when books were rare and hard to come by. Now that we communicate so much with the written word and that we can communicate easily and we can publish easily, the voting goes to a wider body of people, and isn't that terrific? It's just something we can all observe and report on.

Mignon Fogarty: It is. It's wonderful. And I love all the databases we can search to see how language is being used in a big way instead of just hearing what people around us are saying.

Ammon Shea: I was curious, do you have instances in your own use you follow in certain circumstances, but you do not follow in others? One that just came to mind. Not so long ago, there were people that used to say that growing is not a transitive verb. You can't grow the economy and all that ridiculousness. And of course you can grow things like that. But do you have things like that where you would use grow in the transitive sense in speech, but you would not use it in writing? And that's just an example. It could be anything.

Mignon Fogarty: Yeah, no, I've written about grow. I would use it in my writing, too. I disagree with that rule. And one that I know annoys a lot of people but I do also use in my writing is monetize. I had a startup, I run a business, we monetize things. And that's just how it's talked about in business. But I know that rubs a lot of people the wrong way, too.

So, the one that comes to mind, I thought the past tense of to sneak was snuck. I would say we snuck out last night in high school. I know that that is now looked down upon, and we're supposed to say we sneaked out last night in high school. But in speech, I would almost always say snuck every time, but in my writing I would use sneaked. I know it's the correct or more acceptable... That's one thing that over the years I've tried to get away from, correct and incorrect, and use words like more acceptable. So, I know sneaked does more acceptable, but when I'm talking to a friend, I'm almost certainly going to say snuck.

Ammon Shea: I use snuck for everything.

Emily Brewster: I use snuck, also.

Peter Sokolowski: What about over meaning "more than"?

Mignon Fogarty: That's one I still change. In all my editing that's going up on my site, I change over to more than, not because I think it's a rule, but because I just don't want people to yell at me. I just don't want to get the complaints, and it's easy enough to do, so I change it every time. And every time I do it, I think I am submitting to the complainers, I'm letting them win, but it's just a fight that's not worth it.

Peter Sokolowski: To me, that's like less and fewer. You could sit there and argue about it. But I sometimes think that distinction in a grocery line, it can be precious. And if you're not self-conscious, you use them quite naturally.

Ammon Shea: One time in a book, I decided to keep the word enormity in the sense of "very large," and the copy editor asked me to remove it. And I said I wanted to keep it in just because I wanted to see if anybody would notice. And I swear to God, what a mistake. Ten years later, I'm still getting angry letters. I got so many dozens and dozens, like over a hundred angry letters from people. And it was interesting to see that people still cared about this enough to go to that lengths of complaining. I very quickly regretted my decision.

Peter Sokolowski: There's something particular about that kind of knowledge that people reflexively want to correct someone else.

Mignon Fogarty: The passion that people have at one of my book signings many years ago. A woman in the back shook her fist at me and walked out when I said you should say a historic and not an historic. I was a little afraid she might be waiting for me in the parking lot.

Emily Brewster: I sometimes think that the usage issues that were hard for people to learn or that were really drilled into them are ones that they feel like they own or they are invested in, and so they really want those to be followed.

Mignon Fogarty: That is so true. And it reminds me that I've noticed that people who've learned English as a second language often are the most adamant about upholding the rules. And I think it's because they worked so hard to learn the rules, they want them to be respected and followed.

Peter Sokolowski: It occurs to me, that's a perennial problem with the teaching of languages. It's because language is not math. I say it that way because when we start learning another language, it is kind of math, this word equals this word. The very first steps, especially for concrete nouns. This word is book, this word is table. It feels like math, and it feels like, okay, I know exactly how to apply my intellect on this. But then what you realize is, of course, it's a whole system that is interconnected and often illogical, and then it's no longer like math. And that realization can sometimes stop the process. Some people stop learning.

And also, if you're teaching young students, for example, and they start off feeling confident, I know how to study this. And then by the time they get to a more advanced level, that method of studying memorization or whatever isn't always the best one as they get more advanced. And that's why I prefer to say language is a habit. You just get into the habit of this particular sequence of sounds or this particular order of prepositional use or whatever, because treating it as a habit takes logic out of it.

Mignon Fogarty: Right. It's also idiomatic. You're used to hearing it a certain way. I'll never forget a question an adult second language very fluent speaker asked me. She asked me what's the difference between when it sprinkles and when it drizzles. And I still don't know. So incompetent to be able to not answer that question. She said, "You're a language expert. What's the difference?" I'm like, "I don't know."

Peter Sokolowski: I think that also speaks to something about English, which is the number of synonyms that we have. We just have an incredibly rich language. We have a creek and a brook. What's the difference? There's trustee and trusted. What's the difference? You could probably find a usage difference, but the fact is we have a huge richness of color of variety in our adjectives. And I think some people from especially romance languages, they have fewer adjectives, and most of them all derived from one source rather than coming from multiple sources as English does. And so, they do find it frustrating that we can't settle on something more concrete.

Mignon Fogarty: It's just very rich and frustrating.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes, indeed.

Emily Brewster: I'm curious about what you see for Grammar Girl going forward, if you've got plans for the next 15 years.

Mignon Fogarty: Yeah. Thanks. So, with the anniversary, I did do some heavy thinking. Why do I do this? What do I want for the future? And what I love about Grammar Girl is that I help people, and especially that I help people learn. And so, to celebrate the anniversary, I just finished a big fundraising project for teachers through DonorsChoose. So, we raised $15,000. We contributed to 225 teacher projects, and that felt amazing. And teachers have had such a hard year, they deserve good surprises.

So, I would like to do more good with my platform. So, I have a podcast. I have large social media platforms. I have a newsletter. And I'm thinking about how I can do even more for teachers and educational things going forward. So, I do the podcast every week, I'm going to keep doing the newsletter every week, all the things I regularly do, which take a fair amount of my time. But I'm thinking about how I can use the platform in a bigger way for good.

Emily Brewster: Congratulations. That is fantastic.

Ammon Shea: Yeah.

Peter Sokolowski: Thank you so much for doing this and joining us, and thank you for being Grammar Girl. I mean, it's just such a treat to know you, but also to watch this success, because it proves that curiosity can be a positive thing, that it just leads to all of these good results.

Emily Brewster: Yes.

Mignon Fogarty: Thank you. Well, I look forward to seeing you in person some point in the future. And I just love always being able to talk about language with you, you're the best.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts, or email us at Word Matters at m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org. And for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt, artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Peter Sokolowski and Ammon Shea, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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