The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

by Erin Brenner on June 3, 2010

About the same time I acquired The Grammar Devotional for reviewing in this space, I also got the 10th edition of Jane Straus’ The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation: An Easy-to-Use Guide with Clear Rules, Real-World Examples, and Reproducible Quizzes. I was very excited about it. With 10 editions, you have to think that people like this book. And many seem to, including Mignon Fogarty, author of The Grammar Devotional, who wrote the introduction.

But I do not.

Don’t get me wrong. I have a respect for Straus and her work. It takes a lot of knowledge and research to write a grammar book or to teach someone the mechanics of English. (I know: these blog posts take far longer to research and write than you’d think.) Straus often gets it right, breaking down a complex rule into digestible parts and offering plenty of example sentences. It’s no small task to create quizzes that test your understanding of the rules, either. She even offers a pretest and a mastery test, so you can see where your problem areas are before you start the book and how you’ve mastered them after you finish. Yet I just had too many issues with the workbook to really like it.

Style Is Not Grammar

One problem I have is that Straus sometimes presents a style preference for a hard-and-fast rule. Chapter 5, “Writing Numbers,” offers 17 rules for how to write number, yet only one is a true (spelling) rule. They are all style rules. What might be permissible in Chicago may not be in APA or in a general business style. Present your style preferences as grammar rules, and you set your audience up for arguments they’ll lose or, worse, you’ll set them up to fail in their writing tasks. Teach someone a style of presenting numbers, but be sure you teach him that it is a style and that he should know what style he should be using for a given writing assignment.

Her section on “Effective Writing” offers several good tips for tighter, more direct writing. Yet again, though, most of these rules are actually style choices. Not all writing projects call for tight, direct writing, nor should they. Not spelling out what is a style choice and why you would make it limits your students. If they follow the rules in this book, they can mimic the style, but they can’t think for themselves.

When you set out to teach grammar and writing, you generally have to take a position on issues. I find it preferable, however, to outline what the issue is, where I stand on it, and why. Give your audience the ability to grow beyond following a few rules to being able to think critically and write more independently.

The Hazards of Simplifying

Straus really works to simplify her material, so that it is easily understood by her readers. Bravo! One hazard of that is not going deep enough into the topic at hand to get your point across. In the “Adjectives and Adverbs” section, the author writes: “Adjectives…may come before the word they describe (That is a cute puppy.) or they may follow the word they describe (That puppy is cute.).” Which is true…to a point. Cute is used as an adjective after a linking verb. You don’t say, “That puppy barks cute.” You say “That puppy barks cutely.” (or “cutely barks”).

Following the adjective discussion is one on adverbs that focuses solely -ly adverbs (adverbs that answer how). It’s possible that the reader will make the leap from adjectives following a linking verb and an adverb following all other verbs from these two paragraphs. Yet, especially in a basics book, I’d like to see the author help the reader more with that leap. Plus, there’s a whole lot more to adverbs than just the how adverbs. Why not give over some of the space devoted to number style to exploring a little more deeply topics such as adverbs?

When we simplify, we also want to be brief. When I sat down to write my post on the apostrophe, I figured I’d cover all three rules with one go. It wasn’t long before I had over 1,000 words and I’d only covered one rule. That’s not bite-sized! But sometimes brief is a disservice to the reader. On several rules, I wanted more information so that I could learn to think on my own rather than just memorize this list.

Brevity can also lead to styles being set up as rules or errors in the material. In Chapter 3, “Punctuation,” rule 1 is to use commas to separate a list of items in a sentence. All well and good. But Straus’ example uses the serial comma, that comma between the last two items in a series:

My $10 million estate is to be split among my husband, daughter, son, and nephew.

She never says that the serial comma is a matter of style. Dropping that last comma does not change the meaning of the sentence, as she indicates it does.

Which leads me to my biggest problem: misinformation. In Chapter 2, “Confusing Words and Homonyms,” between is listed as being used for just two items and among for three or more. While many people believe this to be true, it’s not. Fogarty explains it well in one Grammar Girl podcast. Even better is how Bryan Garner breaks down the Oxford English Dictionary‘s explanation: “between expresses one-to-one relations of many things, and among expresses collective and undefined relations.”

Wrap Up

The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation offers some good basics, but I missed some of the details. Offering style as a dyed-in-the-wool rules and presenting incorrect or incomplete information can lead students to make more errors than they fix. A little information can be a dangerous thing. Because of all that, I would not recommend this book for most people. There are plenty of other books that accurately explain grammar and usage in plain English and that offer quizzes to measure progress. There are just as many Web sites that do the same.

If you teach English or otherwise train students in writing or editing and you can distinguish good information from bad, you can use parts of this book to help explain concepts and use the quizzes. Just remember to check the quizzes for places where you disagree, too, so that you can use the answer keys accordingly.

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