The Best Little Grammar Book Ever!

by Erin Brenner on September 30, 2010

The Best Little Grammar Book Ever! 101 Ways to Impress With Your Writing and Speaking by Arlene Miller has been sitting on my desk for a while. A long while. When I decided it was time to review it here, I wasn’t sure when I was going to have time to read it. To my surprise, I was able to read it relatively quickly. It isn’t just that the book is short (just 117 pages, including the index) but also that it’s written in a concise, easy-to-understand manner. In today’s time-crunched world, that’s a big plus.

Best Little Grammar doesn’t promise to cover everything to do with grammar, but what it does cover is well worth it. It’s aimed at people who have to write in the course of their day, such as career professionals, recent grads looking for a first job, and those learning English as a second language, rather than those for whom writing is their profession. It offers some grammar basics and lessons to help you produce cleaner, more concise writing.

The book is broken up into chapters and numbered sections, making it easy to locate another section in the book. Each chapter opens with a brief table of contents, so you know what’s covered, and a quiz — so you know what you really need to review. There’s also a glossary and an index, which increase the book’s usefulness.

Miller starts with the basics: parts of speech, sentence structure, punctuation, and capitalization. I like that she goes into more detail on some topics. In the section on verbs, she covers verb tenses beautifully. Even professional writers struggle with tenses, but I don’t often see good reviews of them. Miller offers a good explanation with plenty of examples without dumbing down the details.

The Helpful Hints and Notes get you a little deeper into the topic and often address common writing issues. In Section 17, a Note reminds readers that then is not a conjunction and can’t be used to join sentences. Section 18 offers a Helpful Hint that reminds us never to separate a subject from its verb with a comma. I see these two errors frequently in documents I edit.

As can happen in a brief book, occasionally I wanted Miller to offer more information. In Section 37, she tells the audience not to use firstly, secondly, thirdly, and lastly, but she doesn’t say why. A sentence would be all it takes to explain her advice. But for the most part, the author offers solid advice that will lead to clean, clear, concise writing, which should be every writer’s goal.

Which brings me to my criticism of the book: it offers some style tips and writing advice as absolute rules. It’s a pet peeve of mine that I’ve mentioned before. Section 23 tackles italics and tells the reader to italicize “big things,” that is, “book titles, titles of plays, titles of operas,” and so forth. Trouble is, this is a style rule. Most style guides will tell you to italicize these works. But not all of them will, and they’re not wrong for choosing another method of singling out a publication. Section 87 deals with forming singular and plural possessives. Regular readers of this blog know that whether you use an apostrophe s or just an apostrophe to make James possessive depends on which style guide you follow. Best Little Grammar tells readers to make it James’s. It isn’t that the advice is wrong, per se, but that it’s not the only correct answer and I think her audience is capable of understand the difference.

When an authority offers advice as an absolute rule, there will be those who will blindly follow the advice, even if it causes issues with those they write for. People can be loathe to let go of an opinion they’re convinced is a rule. Others will know that something isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, which could undercut the teacher’s authority. Finally, I’m all in favor of simplifying grammar. But when grammar is oversimplified, learners are deceived into thinking that grammar and writing are easier than they truly are. Already there is a mindset that anyone can write. This is just not true. Writing is a skill, not a talent. It takes study and hard work, and perhaps a natural affinity, to become a good writer.

I want to see those who teach language mechanics and writing help students understand that there are some true complexities in these topics that not all can conquer. They may be the finer points of the topic, but I think adult learners are capable of understanding that there is more to writing than just being able to speak a language or type a few words on a page.

But, as I said, this is my hobbyhorse. Overall, I really like the approach Miller takes with learning grammar and becoming a better writer. She starts with the basics and builds up as she goes along, always referring back if you need a review. Reading the book, I get the sense of how she has taught her material over time and really honed what she wants her students to walk away with. She does delve into some complexities that a writer needs to understand, and she should be applauded for it. And I agree with the writing style she proposes for the specific writing tasks she’s tackling:

Above all, writing should be clear and easy to understand. We are not talking about writing the Great American Novel here. We are talking about things you might write at your job or at school, such as memos, letters, and reports.

If that describes the writing you do, add The Best Little Grammar Book Ever! to your collection.

Update: What’s one of the worst things you can do in a review? Spell the author’s name incorrectly! And that’s exactly what I did. My apologies to Arlene Miller. I’ve made the correction above.

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