Introduction - McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage

McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage, 2nd Edition (2013)


“… You should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least—at least I mean what I say—that’s the same thing, you know.”

“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see!’”

—Alice in Wonderland

The March Hare sounds as though he might have been an English teacher! Whatever his profession, he is clearly aware that precision in one’s language choices can be a serious matter.

Such precision is especially important in written communication. Writing, unlike conversation, allows you to refine your language before sharing it, and readers are well aware you have this “prep time” for writing. When we show our writing to others, there is an expectation of correctness and precision far beyond the expectations of day-to-day conversations. Mistakes that are routinely accepted in casual conversation are glaringly apparent in writing—or in formal speaking situations.

English teachers and March Hares are not the only ones who expect our language choices to be made carefully and correctly. Indeed, many businesspeople are far more demanding than English teachers when it comes to following grammar rules and preferences. Errors and poor decisions in regard to language can annoy readers of all sorts, can confuse people about what you are trying to say, and can lead your audience to question your credibility or professionalism.

Thus, we offer this book to help people improve their ability to follow the rules, conventions, and preferences associated with formal English. This book is intended for various readers and needs. You might feel your skills in these areas need drastic improvement, or you might just need to brush up on a few matters.

Grammar books are commonplace. What makes this one different? Following are seven features that set this book apart:

• Separating grammar and usage: Part I focuses on the grammatical terminology used to describe language. Part II goes a step further by covering the rules and conventions—the “prescriptions” for proper language, or what you should and should not do in formal communication. Rather than conflate these two issues (description versus prescription), this book separates them so readers can pay attention to the parts that matter most to them.

• A nontechnical approach: You do not have to be a grammarian or linguist to use this book. Part I covers the technical aspects of grammar, but we assume our readers do not necessarily have a background in this area. More importantly, Part II does not rely on Part I or on previous knowledge of formal grammar.

• Accessible, bottom-line information: Part II in particular offers bottom-line definitions, hints, and rules that summarize the least you need to know about grammar and usage.

• More than just the bottom line: Most reference books on grammar stop with the bottom-line rules and with maybe an example or two. The problem is that almost every grammar rule is not self-explanatory. If it were, you would not need a book on grammar at this point in your life. Unlike most reference books on grammar, ours gives a thorough explanation so that you can better understand the rules, exceptions, and methods for correcting an error. Our goal is for you to know how to avoid problems so you will not need this or any other grammar book later. Thus, we provide enough information so you can truly understand and learn.

• A focus on the most important aspects of grammar and usage: To avoid overwhelming our readers, this book focuses on what matters the most. Neither Part I nor Part II covers every aspect of formal English. Instead, Part I deals with the grammatical terminology and information that are most useful and common. Part II deals with the most serious or most frequent errors in formal English.

• Clearly marked examples of correct and incorrect sentences: People learn from examples, so we include plenty. But research indicates that many people who are given incorrect examples only remember how to create these errors. Often readers do not know that the examples are actually incorrect, or they only remember seeing mistakes, meaning all they learn is how to commit an error. In this book we clearly mark errors (with an X); other examples are correct. We attempt to include at least as many correct examples as errors.

• A focus on traditional grammar with insights from modern approaches: In school the most common approach to grammar is a traditional scheme based on certain parts of speech, functions, and definitions that, as a whole, are standard throughout the English-speaking world. Our book uses this system as a basis. However, along the way we draw on insights from other theories of grammar and language. For example, Part II is largely based on the notion that people use intuitive tips that tell them if they are putting a sentence together properly. This notion builds on modern grammatical theories that assume people learn a language by subconsciously drawing on particular tests and procedures. In other words, our book describes English in ways that might sound familiar to those who studied grammar in school, but we also draw on more recent perspectives of how people naturally learn and improve their language skills.

For this second edition of the book, we have revised and updated Chapter 12, “Apostrophes,” to cover the most current preferences in using apostrophes for plurals of letters. We have also added a new chapter, Chapter 17, “Grammar Etiquette for Digital Communication,” offering guidance regarding the increasingly complex and varied world of online communication. We focus on how linguistic choices in text messages, e-mails, Facebook updates, tweets, and more affect not only clarity but also the way the writer is perceived. While several grammar handbooks offer a few observations on this topic, this new chapter provides a far more thorough guide to the surprisingly complex role of grammar in electronic communication.

We thank you for your interest in this book and hope that it proves not only useful but interesting.