Summer Reading for a Grammar Geek

Anguished EnglishAs a lover of the English language, I have assembled a small library over the years of books about writing (yes, pretty geeky of me, I know). One of my favorite books is Anguished English: An Anthology of Accidental Assaults Upon Our Language, by Richard Lederer. Lederer is a former English teacher and writer about writing who collects language gaffes and errors like some people collect wheat pennies or Beanie Babies.

On a rainy day this summer,  with the power out from a storm, my son and I found a copy of Anguished English on the cottage bookshelf and sat down together to kill some time. Two hours later our sides aches from laughing so much at the ways people have mangled the English language! I think he learned more about English and writing in those 2 hours than he has in all of his 11 years.

If you want a few quick, humorous lessons to improve your (or your child’s) writing, pick up a copy of Anguished English. It belongs on the bookshelves and bedside tables of anyone who writes at work. Two of my favorite lessons from Anguished English are below.

Chapter: It’s an Ad, Ad, Ad, Ad World

We are all trying to sell something. Our expertise, our product, maybe ourselves! Marketing helps convey to people who we are and what we have to sell. Whether you are writing a classified ad Craigslist entry or a product review, it pays to pay attention to your copy. Sometimes we are too close to the words we write to see the perspective of the reader, such as with these examples:

  • Lost: small poodle. Reward. Neutered. Like one of the family. [Yes, I know a few people who should be neutered too. Thankfully none of them are in my family.]
  • The hotel has bowling alleys, tennis courts, comfortable beds, and other athletic facilities. [Great way to get your cardio in!]
  • Mixing bowl set designed to please a cook with round bottom for efficient beating. [Those are my favorite kind of cooks.]

Lesson learned: PROOFREAD! If possible, ask another person to serve as a second set of eyes to review your writing, especially if it is going to someone important you need to impress. Sometimes a proofreader who has not been involved in the writing process will catch word nuances and save you some embarrassment.

Chapter: Mangling Modifiers

Modifiers are words that describe (i.e., “modify”) other words. Adjectives modify nouns. Adverbs modify verbs. The bottom line on modifiers is that they need to fall in a logical place in the sentence so the sentence reads correctly. Otherwise, you sound like a fool (and no, I am not talking about the Shakespearean character known for the witty use of language). Misplacing a modifier is a mistake with results worthy of an 11-year-old boy’s laugh-fest! Some examples from Anguished English:

  • Do not sit in chair without being fully assembled. [I know a few people who are missing a screw or two, too.]
  • No one was injured in the blast, which was attributed to a buildup of gas by one town official. [Blame it on the cauliflower.]
  • Breaking into the window of the girls’ dormitory, the dean of men surprised 10 members of the football team. [If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!]

Lesson learned: Word order and sentence structure impact the meaning of your writing. Reading a sentence aloud can help identify misplaced modifiers (sentence diagramming works better). Sometimes hearing the words – versus reading them on the page – provides insight into how the words work together to convey the meaning you intend – or not!

Learning ways to improve grammar and writing doesn’t have to be boring or drawn out. An hour or two reading Anguished English can do much to draw attention to common grammar gaffes like word choice and misplaced modifiers. Put it on your bedside table tonight!

Heather Nelson is a partner with PeopleResults, a consultancy that guides organizations and individuals to “start the wave” of change. Heather and the team have advised major clients including PepsiCo, McKesson, Microsoft, Frito-Lay, Hitachi Consulting and many others on how to realize results through people. Contact her at