Are You Booked for the Holidays?

Rob Kyff on

Put some schoolin' in your yule-in' this holiday season with one of these new books about words and language.

"Breezy" and "entertaining" aren't words usually associated with grammar, but they aptly describe "Making Sense -- The Glamorous Story of English Grammar" (Oxford, $24.95) by renowned linguist David Crystal. Instead of scrabbling through the weeds of subjunctives and participles, Crystal shows how young children learn grammar intuitively as they seek to create meaning.

He disses senseless rules, such as never ending a sentence with a preposition and never splitting infinitives, showing that such strictures often evolved from social class distinctions or an obsession with imitating Latin.

We still need grammatical standards, of course, and Kathleen Sears serves them up fresh in "Grammar 101" (Adams Media, $15.99). Clear and concise, this convenient guide offers everything from spelling mnemonics ("skiing" has two ski poles in the middle), faulty comparison ("Dawn dislikes traveling alone more than Dave"), and sentence fragments. (Is it sometimes OK to use them? Without a doubt.)

This hardbound book is the size of a small paperback, making it a handy and durable rock of reference for any writer's desk.

In "A World Without Whom" (Bloomsbury, $26.00), Emily Favilla, the copy chief for Buzzfeed, leads a delightful romp through language in the digital age. Sassy and irreverent, she joyfully smashes traditional prohibitions on everything from comma splices to the passive voice.

But she's no anarchist; she advocates the correct use of the subjunctive voice, serial commas and, yes, "whom." You'll find some cool tips here: using periods in tweets indicates anger; "TL;DR" means "too long; didn't read"; and the shortened form of "casual" is spelled "caj."


Speaking of caj, "Vulgar Tongues: An Alternative History of English Slang" by Max Decharne (Pegasus, $26.95) shows how the Elizabethan argot of gangsters, sailors and circus folk "seized the King's English by the throat and took it to places it would probably regret in the morning."

Who knew that our hip word "fly," meaning "with it, knowing," first soared in London 200 years ago, or that Simon and Garfunkel's "groovy" once meant "stuck in a rut," or that Samuel Johnson's 1775 dictionary included a surprisingly contemporary definition of the verb "rap": "to utter with hasty violence"?

May all your rapping (and wrapping) this season be joyful!


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via e-mail to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2017 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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