Frank L. Cioffi


On his book One Day in the Life of the English Language: A Microcosmic Usage Handbook

Cover Interview of December 06, 2016

In a nutshell

This book is a grammar handbook. It covers parts of speech, diction, and punctuation. Most grammar handbooks function as reference books, and lay out “Standard Written English” as if it were absolute truth. They present these rules as apodictic, with the implicit message LEARN THESE RULES OR ELSE.

It seems to me that this stance isn’t quite honest. In fact, linguists constantly debate rules of grammar. And these rules, too, are ever-evolving.

So I thought I’d write a grammar handbook that laid out the “fundamentals” but did so in a less reference book-like fashion than did most grammar handbooks. I wanted to make this book chatty, reader-friendly—something readers even read cover to cover. Reading it cover to cover helps a lot, given the interconnectedness of many grammatical principles. For example, if a professor or editor says, “Fix your comma splices,” one might look up comma splices in a handbook. There, the instruction might be this: “When joining main clauses, you need to use more than merely a comma; you might use a semicolon, a comma with a coordinating conjunction, or subordinate one main clause to the other.” Well, OK, but what’s a “main clause”? What’s a “coordinating conjunction”? What does “subordinate one clause to the other” mean? Just dipping into such a book can be frustrating.

Another difference between this handbook and the thousand or so others on the market is that most handbooks offer descriptions and “rules,” reinforcing them with invented “example sentences.” These sentences have a kind of pared-down quality to them, since they were fabricated with the specific purpose of illustrating a grammatical principle. In my book I quote a couple of such sentences, in this case illustrating subject-verb agreement: “A baby cries.” “The babies cry.” These show how verb forms differ with a singular subject and a plural subject. But most people have no trouble with such simple sentences. Subject-verb agreement creates difficulties when (among other instances) the sentences get complex (“John, as well as his brother Jim, who was also on board for the campaign, is [not are] fighting a tough battle”); when it’s unclear if the subject is singular or plural: “None of the pictures are [or is?] boring”; or when the verb precedes the subject (“There are many problems we’re examining”).

Thus, instead of fabricating example sentences, I decided to use actual sentences from material published on an average day, December 29, 2008. This strategy works in two ways: first, since most of these example sentences were generated by professional writers, their inclusion as suspect or wrong gives readers a bit of relief, maybe; it’s not only the average person who struggles with English; even people who write for a living make mistakes. And second, these sentences show that language has to work not just in fabricated sentences, but in an actual world, under pressure of circumstance, where it really matters what you say and how you say it. Capturing the language our newspaper/magazine writers used on a single day roots the book in history, attaches it to actuality. The book also includes some elegant, exact, and beautiful sentences that appeared that day.