Q&A with Mignon Fogarty aka Grammar Girl
How did you become Grammar Girl?
I have a degree in English, and I had a few editing jobs I loved in Silicon Valley, but after I got laid off, I struck out on my own as a freelance writer and editor. I’ve always loved technology, so when I heard about this new thing called podcasting, I decided to give it a try. I started by dabbling—podcasting some of the articles I had written for magazines and doing interviews. Eventually I struck on the idea of producing a short podcast with grammar tips after watching my editing clients struggle with their writing. The show was an instant success, making it into the iTunes top 100 within weeks.
Do you have a grammatical pet peeve? Something that always annoys you when you see it misused?
Ironically, I don’t get annoyed by grammatical errors anymore. I used to get annoyed when clients changed good writing to bad writing—for example, changing a correct although to a while—but the more time I spend researching usage topics the more I realize that many seemingly hard-and-fast rules are actually just suggestions or consensus opinions, so I’ve become much more forgiving. (Sometimes although and while are interchangeable.)
Are there any grammar rules that trip you up? Ones that you have to stop and think about or even need to look up to double-check?
I always have to look up the proper conjugation for lay and lie. You’d think I’d know it by now, but it doesn’t seem to stick. I’m working on making a mnemonic for it, but so far I haven’t come up with anything great. There’s a “lay-lie” conjugation chart in the book because I figure if I have problems with it, other people probably do too.
What is your most frequently asked grammar question?
There isn’t a single standout, but one of the common questions is how to remember the difference between affect and effect. I have lots of memory tricks for that one! My favorite trick to remember that affect is usually a verb and effect is usually a noun is to think of a raven flying down the avenue. The first letters of the phrase “affect verb, effect noun” are a-v-e-n, and raven and avenue both have “aven” in them. Other people like the trick that affect stands for an action, and both affect and action start with the letter a. There are even more tricks in the book.
Is it really that important to make grammar a part of your daily life?
It’s extremely important to have good writing skills these days because we communicate by writing so much more than we used to, and I believe the easiest way to improve your writing, including grammar, is to do it a little bit every day. Short rules make up the bulk of what people need to know. They aren’t complicated; it’s just about accumulating small bits of knowledge. If you can learn one new thing every day (or remind yourself of something you used to know but have forgotten), you’ll be an expert within a year.