Interview: “Grammar Girl”


Voilà! The identity of our Secret Interview Subject is now officially revealed, though we suppose we tipped our hand a bit by printing that cartoon a couple weeks back. Mignon Fogarty was a magazine writer, science and technical writer, and entrepreneur until her life was taken over by hosting the weekly audio podcast Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing and by the related tasks that followed. Each Thursday, for five minutes, she contributes a welcome burst of clarity to our misused, misspelled, grammatically benighted world, parsing the chaos while managing to entertain and delight. The enormous success of her show has launched a New York Times bestselling book by the same title and landed her appearances on CNN and Oprah—echelons to which, we can safely say, no grammarian has ascended before. This week Ms. Fogarty has at last attained the true pinnacle of fame: an interview with the Abbeville Manual of Style.

AMoS: Let’s get the big question out of the way first. Where do you stand on split infinitives?

MF: I like to boldly split infinitives, and I love to dispel the myth that it’s against the rules. I’m actually working on a song about split infinitives. I’ve been working on it for over a year, so it may never see the light of day, but that’s how passionate I am about it—I felt compelled to sing. 

AMoS: How did you get started in your career as celebrity grammarian? 

MF: Like all celebrities, my career began with the heartbreak of rejection after rejection. I sneaked away from restaurant jobs for auditions and took all the small off-Oxford parts I could get, hoping to be discovered by the grammar agents who would occasionally come by the shows. Then one day I realized the Internet existed and I could go directly to the audience without the filter of the establishment. And the rest, as they say, is history.

AMoS: Do you feel grammar rules should be primarily prescriptive or descriptive—that is, should they dictate how the language ought to work or describe and adapt to how it does work? 

MF: I constantly struggle with this question. I hate rules that aren’t logical (like the rule against splitting infinitives), but I also don’t think something should become acceptable language just because a boy band put it in a song. I had a lot of fun writing about the word “funnest” when Steve Jobs used it in his keynote address recently. It’s one of those words that is on its way to becoming acceptable, but isn’t there yet. I usually try to find a middle ground, and I also try to follow rather than lead because people come to my website and podcast looking for answers that will keep them from getting in trouble, not answers that will put them out in front on the language wars.

AMoS: What is the grammatical error that grates on you the most? 

MF: I can’t say that there is one error that grates on me the most. The biggest thing that bothers me is when people don’t try. You know how sometimes you read someone’s writing and you can just tell they don’t even care about getting the words right? That bugs me. (And yes, I did just use “they” as a singular pronoun. And start a sentence with “and.” I believe both are fine.)

AMoS: What is the grammatical error you find yourself committing most often? 

MF: I tend to use “like” as a conjunction. Technically, we’re supposed to say “It looks as if it’s going to rain” or “It looks as though it’s going to rain.” I tend to say “It looks like it’s going to rain.” That’s wrong, but I’ve been saying it that way my whole life and it’s a hard habit to break. I’m constantly correcting myself.

AMoS: How do you feel about our sworn arch-nemesis, The Chicago Manual of Style? Not a loaded question or anything.

MF: It bugs me when they change the numbering of the sections from edition to edition. I mean, they’re like the Bible of copyediting. When I cite “Chicago 6.78” it should always mean the section about irony quotes, but now, in the new edition, 6.78 is the section about inappropriate use of an exclamation point! If you’re going to develop a numbering method like that, you should stick to it. 

AMoS: What is the most rewarding part of doing the podcast? What is the most stressful? 

MF: The amount of listener feedback I get is amazing. I used to write for magazines, and I’d hear from a reader maybe once every five or six articles. With Grammar Girl, I hear from tens of listeners every day. It can be incredibly rewarding to hear about how the show is helping people do better at work or at school. I’ve heard from people who say it has literally changed their lives (in a good way), and that is something I never expected.

The listener feedback is also the most stressful part of the podcast because for every wonderful message I get, there are probably two nasty messages from people who disagree with what I say, or found some error  (or perceived error) in the show. The funny thing is that the more nasty someone is, the more likely they are to be wrong. It’s something I’ve talked about with other public grammarians, and they notice the same thing.

AMoS: What are your future plans for “Grammar Girl”? Will your title be like “Dear Abby”—a hereditary institution, passed on to a new generation via some kind of sacred ritual?

MF: Oooh. I like that idea. I’ll have to develop a sacred ritual! Actually, I would like to see Grammar Girl go on for a long time. One of the reasons I decided to use a cartoon character instead of my own picture in the logo is so that the show wouldn’t be dependent on me to keep going. I’ll keep doing it for the foreseeable future, but it’s easy to imagine that someone else might take the reins someday. I can’t imagine still being Grammar Girl when I’m 60! I hope to be enjoying a beach somewhere, throwing a stick for a dog and enjoying time with my family.

*     *     *

Thanks again to Mignon Fogarty for answering our questions, ragging on Chicago, and generally being a rock star to humble editors like us. Also, it sounds like as though she’ll be a literal rock star in the very near future! We can’t wait to hear that ditty about split infinitives, which we fully expect to be the biggest thing to hit the grammar music scene since “Conjunction Junction” shook our world forever.

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Filed under Interviews, Media

2 responses to “Interview: “Grammar Girl”

  1. I second Grammar Girl in boldly splitting infinitives where nobody has boldly split infinitives before. Ever since I read Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue and his explanation of how the rules of English were based on the rules for Latin, which doesn’t split infinitives for the simple reason that it doesn’t have them, I’ve been a grammar agnostic. If I recall correctly, Bryson calls English rules for grammar and their Latin source equal to playing football using the rules for baseball.


    P.S.–When I saw the reference to “Chicago 6.78,” I felt an overwhelming urge to make a huge “Chicago 6.78” sign, buy a rainbow-colored wig, and appear in the background of nationally televised sporting events. (If you don’t get the reference, Google “Rollen Stewart.”)

  2. abbeville

    We agree with both you and Grammar Girl on the split infinitive rule, which was a particularly mindless grafting of Latin grammar onto English, but as for most of the other rules…who’s to say they weren’t just as arbitrary in Latin? Without being too dogmatic, we’re in favor of maintaining some semblance of “standard English” if only because we believe that rules are made to be–elegantly–broken. If anything goes, all the time, playing with language becomes less interesting because there is nothing to play with, no conventions to overturn. Also, of course, some of the rules do make sense, and facilitate clear expression of thought.

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