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

Cover Interview of

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.

December 7, 2016

The wide angle

One thing I ask often is this: what is the value of “correct” grammar? It seems to me that correctness has gotten a bad reputation: most people think it’s an obsession of a bygone age; in fact, some of my students contend that concern for correctness is “out of date” in the “era of social media.” Most people understand what you mean, even if there are some grammatical mistakes evidenced in the written message.

My take on this is as follows: yes and no. I emphasize that there is no single correct version of English, and that one needs to take into consideration both the occasion and audience. That is, what is the language you are generating being used for? Is it a remark to a friend or family member at your breakfast table, is it an email to a company you’re trying to buy something from, is it a tweet you are sending out to hundreds of followers, is it a job application letter or a letter of reference or a letter to the editor of your local newspaper? All of these are quite different writing situations, and each demands a different “level” of English, a different attentiveness to correct and exact expression.

While much English we generate, then, is informal and off the cuff, there are, for most people, also some significant situations in which formal, correct English is necessary.

In these situations, which sometimes might masquerade as “informal” language situations, one should probably use formal English, or SWE, since not doing so can possibly have two negative effects: first, communicative efficiency might suffer. If one is not careful with pronouns, a sentence might, for example, not make it clear enough what the antecedent to a pronoun is. You don’t want an audience to be wondering, “Who is the ‘he’ being referred to?” And in many professional situations such exactness is of paramount importance—even a comma misused can cost someone untold amounts of money … or heartache. Second, oftentimes, using a grammatically incorrect form will often stigmatize the speaker or writer; an audience, or a portion of it, might dismiss that speaker’s or writer’s ideas, thinking that those ideas can’t be any good since the person can’t even speak or write correct English.

Now admittedly such dismissals often emerge from a misunderstanding of the rules (“I can’t take him seriously; he splits his infinitives”), but as a writer or speaker, one needs to be aware of what predilections one’s audience might have.

Taking off from this, I debunk certain prohibitions, such as “avoid split infinitives, such as ‘to boldly go’” (in fact, split infinitives are just fine); “avoid ending sentences with a preposition: (again, no harm at all in this); “never start a sentence with a conjunction like ‘so’ or ‘and’” (there is no problem starting sentences with conjunctions).

Finally, the book offers an “ethical stance” to correct language use, suggesting that society would work much more smoothly if more people were more conscientious about their writing and speaking.

December 7, 2016

A close-up

Picking up a book in a bookstore, a lot of readers look at a book’s opening and closing pages. From these they can get a sense of the basic idea and where it ends up.

If I had to pick a place I’d like reader to open to, it would be pages 286-87, “A Microconclusion.” This starts with a quotation from Agnes Denes’s prose poem, “Human Dust”:

He was an artist. He died of a heart attack. He was born fifty years ago … . He was unhappy and lonely more often than not, achieved 1/10,000 of his dreams, managed to get his opinions across 184 times and was misunderstood 3,800 times when it mattered.

This seems to me unutterably sad—but at the same time, rather typical. Most people are not routinely understood, “when it mattered.” In some ways, this is the tragedy of the contemporary world, or a big part of it.

What I want people to “get” from this book is that using language correctly will help them to be understood, especially when it matters. On page 287, I discuss the situation of an immigrant who killed thirteen people in Binghamton, NY. Apparently he “felt degraded because of his inability to speak English.” Admittedly, it would have made more sense to have attended ESL classes at the local university than murdering thirteen unfortunate souls, but there is some lesson here, I think, for the non-psychotic reader: try to get your language exact. Try to reach people. Using words in a certain manner will help smooth out the rough patches of life, will help make you feel good about yourself and your situation.

Just yesterday I was having a lunch with a friend, and I was complaining about my situation at the college. I said, “You know, I’ve been moved out of the English department, to another floor, and not very many faculty seek me out there.” He said he had had a similar experience at his job. Then he added, “But of course you are no longer the Director of Writing. You used to be a real big shot in the department; now you are just a professor, one among many.” What a wonderful distillation of the problem! Just finding the right words to express it, he made me feel a great deal better. He understood my situation, and he offered words that captured that situation and quelled my anxiety.

As Hillary Clinton said in her first debate, “Words matter.” I quite agree.

December 7, 2016


More than half the people I meet outside of my profession, when learning that I teach college English, confess, “I’ve always been bad at English.” For many people, English grammar is (or was) a nightmare. They might have had a junior high school teacher who was a real martinet and made them feel very stupid and inadequate for not being able, say, to diagram a sentence or identify a subject or a verb. It seems to me that in fact there is a widespread, an endemic, fear of English grammar.

I’d like to start helping to remedy this fear. I would like my book to help disabuse people of the ideas that English is impossible, that grammar is pointless and arcane, and that since only teachers or writers can speak or write correctly, it’s hopeless to even try. In short, in One Day in the Life of the English Language, I am attempting to make grammar accessible and even somewhat fun.

I know that’s a stretch, the “fun” part. But if people listened carefully to language, they would see that it has a lot of potential for fun. In my book I invoke what I call the “absurd universe” phenomenon: this occurs when people misuse English in such a way that they inadvertently invoke something ridiculous, as in “With a husband and five children, her washing machine was running all the time.” Does the washing machine have a husband and five children? Or today on the radio, I heard a researcher introduced as a person “studying the roots of AIDs and Patient O at Kansas State University.” Well, is the researcher only looking at the situation at Kansas State U? No. But ever so briefly, the expression invoked an absurd situation, and while most listeners understood that the researcher was at KSU, and he was studying the worldwide phenomenon of AIDs and Patient O, there was a short interval when another interpretation, a slightly absurd one, edged in. In this interval, I argue, something is lost. I would like people to be more conscious of their language use, more aware that others can easily misinterpret one’s words, or can be momentarily bewildered, which fact impairs communicative efficiency.

In addition, I would like readers to strive toward complexity in their language use. I know that complex sentences have more potential for containing errors of various kinds, but that shouldn’t drive people into simplistic sentence patterns, what I call the “my puppy syndrome” (“My puppy is cute. He has a long tail. He wags it often. I love my puppy”). Many people, fearful of making mistakes, resort to such prose (I saw it recently in a letter of recommendation that a medical doctor wrote for a patient wanting to get into medical school). True, there are fewer mistakes in “my puppy” writing. But it isn’t sufficiently sophisticated or complex to use in most situations where one’s message “matters.” In fact, the message it sends by its very form is that the writer is either nervous about writing, is verbally/intellectually challenged—or has nothing to say.

Finally, too, I want journalists and magazine writers to read this book (many have expressed an interest in doing so, I note), and to recognize that their words matter. How they use language is significant because so many people will be reading what they wrote. In a recent review of this book that Mary Norris wrote in the Times Literary Supplement, Norris addressed head-on some of the problems and questions I had with sentences she had edited and which appeared in the December 29, 2008 New Yorker. While I think that she and I will have to “agree to disagree,” it seemed to me a good sign that she, an editor at a notable weekly magazine, would once again examine some of the sentence she edited, and attempt to offer an explanation for why they were printed as they were. Her answer to this, by the way, is summed up in her review’s title: “Whichcraft.”

December 7, 2016
Frank L. Cioffi One Day in the Life of the English Language: A Microcosmic Usage Handbook Princeton University Press 384 pages, 5 x 7 inches 9780691165073

Born in Brooklyn, Frank L. Cioffi has taught at Indiana University, Eastern New Mexico University, Gdańsk University, Central Washington University, Princeton University, Bard College, Scripps College, and Baruch College—CUNY, where he is currently Professor of English. His book The Imaginative Argument: A Practical Manifesto for Writers is due out in a revised, second edition from Princeton University Press in the summer of 2017. He is currently working on an article about Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” He teaches college classes in grammar, science fiction, modern American literature, and writing. He lives in New Jersey with his wife.

Cover Interview of
December 7, 2016