10/27/2013 06:33 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Why I Wrote a Grammar Book

People often ask me why I wrote a grammar book. During most of my professional career, I worked with not-for-profit institutions in various parts of the country. Regardless of where I was located -- no matter the state or the setting -- I found that the people I encountered all had something in common. From the highest authority to the youngest student, from the hotshot financier to the working-class parent, I found that they all had one thing in common: they tended to make the same grammatical errors.

When I retired from a formal position that required my going to the office each day, I began a systematic study of the typical grammatical errors people make. I read newspapers, those from
small towns that are known primarily to regional readers and some of the biggies with national and international audiences; I read professional journals from religious, educational, and philanthropic publishers; I listened to radio newscasters and watched the TV news from the major, cable, and satellite networks; I watched movies -- old ones and new ones; I patiently listened to and watched commercials on radio and TV; I paid attention to highway billboards; I listened to the speeches of politicians and read their newsletters; I even resorted to watching soap operas. Again and again, I found the same grammatical errors. These findings led me to write The Big Ten of Grammar: Identifying and Fixing the Ten Most Frequent Grammatical Errors.

When the book was first published in hardback, I developed a website: In the website I offered to answer grammatical questions and provided a way for readers to e-mail their questions to me. (They can still do that.) I received queries not only from people living in the United States, but also from residents of foreign countries as far away as India. I also received phone calls and e-mails not connected to my website, asking questions about grammar and suggesting things that I did not include in the book. All of this made it possible for me to understand where readers were coming from and some of the grammatical issues that were puzzling them that I had not included in the book.

About that time, another publisher got in touch with me, wanting to publish The Big Ten of Grammar in softback. Of course, I agreed. The softbound edition, which has a different color cover, blue instead of red, is nearly identical with the original hardback, except for one primary change: in the newer edition I included an appendix titled, "Keeping Up-To-Date: Ten
Short Reminders." The appendix, based on the queries people had sent to me via my website, deals with recent changes in the accepted standards of grammar that many people are unaware of.

During our years of elementary and secondary education, we learn the basics of English grammar. Most colleges and universities require students to take at least one English grammar class. But it is not enough to rely on what we have learned in the past. It is necessary to stay up-to-date in English grammar, just as it is in any field. However slowly, standard practices of grammar do change, and it is not always easy to keep up-to-date on the changes.

Every time I write about the changes that occur in grammar, people always ask me who makes up the rules of grammar. That in itself could be a very lengthy article, but the short answer is that input from scholars and publishers from the English-speaking world plays the major role in establishing grammatical standards, but how people in general use words also plays a part, especially where certain words or phrases are common in one particular geographic region, but are generally considered to be incorrect.

There are two books that are, in my opinion, the most up-to-date, easy-to-use-and-understand, and accurate resources for correct grammar. The Chicago Manual of Style: the Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers, published by the University of Chicago and now in its sixteenth edition, is considered by scholars around the world to be the premier author for English grammar in print today. Although at first this one-volume work of just over one thousand pages may seem a little overwhelming, if one takes the time to get acquainted with its general format it is actually fun to use and so rewarding to find authoritative answers to any grammatical question one could come up with.

The other resource I recommend is Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, now in its eleventh edition, and in my opinion the best dictionary on the market for everyday use. Many companies use the name Webster in the titles of their dictionaries, and there are several different Merriam-Webster dictionaries. I am referring specifically to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. It includes more than definitions of words; it includes the proper grammatical use of many words, and details the correct use of words that have a similar meaning. In the back of the dictionary, one will find sections devoted to: "Signs and Symbols" from a great variety of fields (business and finance, chemistry, mathematics, weather, and so forth); "A Handbook of Style" for punctuation; a guide for the correct usage of "Capitals and Italics"; "Documentation of Sources," dealing with footnotes and endnotes, bibliographies, and so forth; and "Forms of Addresses," showing the correct titles to use in addressing religious leaders, military officers, government officials with special titles, and things like that.

Although The Associated Press Stylebook is considered "the standard" by journalists, I do not find it a consistently-reliable resource for accurate answers to difficult grammatical queries. But if one primarily is writing for newspapers and magazines, it definitely should be used.

This may all seem academic and of little interest for everyday use, but I continually point out that correct grammar is the very foundation for good communication: the better the grammar, the better the communication. How many times do we hear someone in a heated argument say, "That's not what I said"? In the workplace, how many times do you have to send an e-mail, write a letter, or make a telephone call that deals with a controversial or delicate issue that needs to be approached in just the right way? Or how many times in writing that term paper or college application do you struggle for the best way of saying something? Or what about that job application or that promotional advancement you have to apply for? And on the list goes.

There is no question about it: correct grammar, which leads to good communication, is important for all of us, in our personal, school, and professional lives. And that is why I wrote a grammar book.

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.