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What did you like to read when you were a child?

I devoured fairy tales, especially the violent, gory ones. Later, as my reading skills improved, I liked to sneak a peek at my mom’s bedside reading. In fact, I learned about sex—the mechanics of it, anyway—by surreptitiously reading a steamy novel, Ten North Frederick, that I’d smuggled out of my parents’ bedroom.

I noticed that Words Fail Me is dedicated to your mother. How did she influence you in your choice of career?

Her greatest influence on my work life, and on my life in general, has been her encouragement and her calm acceptance of whatever I wanted to do (I’m excluding things like playing with matches). I can imagine her saying, “You want to be a trapeze artist? How interesting!” Her own work life has been much more wide-ranging than mine, by the way. She’s been a Pinkerton’s detective, the editor of a scholarly historical journal, and finally a certified respiratory therapist. She’s retired now.

As a book reviewer, what really excites you about a book?

First, the book has to be well written. Second, it has to hold my interest. It also helps if the ideas are fresh and original.

What was your inspiration to write your first grammar book, Woe Is I?

A wonderful book editor (Jane Isay, then at Putnam) asked me to write a lighthearted grammar guide, and I jumped at the chance to share what I’d learned in 20 years of editing. I wanted to explain the most common grammatical mysteries in simple language, avoiding the technical terminology that intimidates so many of us—”subjunctives,” “intransitives,” “coordinating conjunctions,” “independent clauses.”

What kind of response did you receive after Woe Is I was published? Did it surprise you that a grammar book would be so popular that it would lead to a sequel?

The response surprised everybody involved, I think. The book seemed to strike a chord among people who hadn’t studied grammar in school (everybody under 40, that is), and among those who had been turned off by more pedantic books. Many teachers tell me they use it in their classrooms.

In Words Fail Me you discuss one of the surprising effects of the electronic revolution—the showcasing of America’s poor writing skills. Many people treat e-mail as if it were a spoken conversation, using slang and omitting basic sentence structure. Others approach drafting an e-mail as they would a written letter. What is your opinion on this subject?

E-mail seems to fall somewhere between speech and formal writing. But when you’re writing an electronic message of any kind, you should first consider your audience. Who’s on the other end? If you’re e-mailing your senator, your professor, or a prospective employer, be just as careful as you would in a written letter—that is, do your best with the grammar, spelling, punctuation, and composition. If you’re e-mailing your best friend, you can relax a bit, just as you would in speaking to that person. But don’t send anything that could be hurtful or embarrassing if it fell into the wrong hands. Especially at work!

The subject of grammar is an intimidating one for many people. Why do you think this is true? Who is to blame for the fact that recent studies show that most high school students are incapable of writing a coherent sentence?

Many people are needlessly frightened away from the subject by all the bulky terminology, which I referred to above and which makes English grammar seem more complicated than it really is. A reader once told me that you don’t have to know all the parts of a car to be a good driver.

As for America’s incoherent youth, the blame lies with our schools, which have de-emphasized the teaching of English grammar and composition since about the late 1960s. The idea was that children learn language in the process of using it, and that correcting their speech or their writing would impede their creativity, spontaneity, and self-esteem. This may have sounded good 30 years ago, but unfortunately it doesn’t work. What’s worse, many of today’s teachers were schoolchildren in the ’60s and ’70s; naturally, they’re ill equipped to teach what they never learned themselves. School districts are learning that while it’s easy to remove a subject from the curriculum, it’s very difficult to put it back.

If you had to choose your all-time top three grammar pet peeves, what would they be?

First, using I when me is correct. Here’s an example: Dad took Freddie and I skiing. It’s a common mistake, but if you want to be correct, just mentally eliminate the other guy: Dad took … me skiing.

Second, confusing its and your and whose (possessives) with it’s and you’re and who’s (contractions). Here the apostrophes stand in for missing letters, so if the word is short for “it is,” go for it’s; if the word is short for “you are,” go for you’re; if the word is short for “who is,” go for who’s.

Third—and this isn’t actually a grammar problem—I cringe when I hear or read non-words like “irregardless.” And I shiver when I come across bloated, empty language, as in, “The parameters of his fiscal dynamic were negatively impacted by his involuntary separation.” In other words, “He was broke after he was fired.”

What is the greatest challenge you’ve faced in leaving your job to write full time?

Paying the bills.

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