Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty makes grammar glamorous
I never thought Grammar Girl would be apologizing to me. After all, this was Mignon Fogarty who, after starting her wildly successful podcast on grammar, wrote a New York Times bestseller and was on Oprah’s show settling a grammar dispute.
But there she was, pleading on my voicemail for forgiveness for forgetting our interview. I didn’t mind. At our rescheduled interview she confessed that, “Obviously I have a terrible memory.”
Fogarty, a Reno resident, recently released her second paperback book, The Grammar Devotional. Maybe you’ve heard of her. Maybe you haven’t. She is a goddess among grammarians and a blessing for the grammatically challenged.
Before Fogarty was Grammar Girl, she wrote science articles and technical manuals, which, oddly enough, wasn’t too exciting.
“I started making memory tricks for myself so I wouldn’t have to keep looking things up every week,” she said.
After producing a successful, yet time-consuming and unprofitable science podcast titled “Absolute Science,” she thought about starting another, simpler podcast.
“I was on vacation in Santa Cruz,” she said. “I was in a coffee shop on the beach, and I was editing a technical document for a scientist, and I realized I see the same grammar errors over and over again.”
After her “ah-ha” moment, she went home, pulled out her Snowball microphone and started recording. “Well, I thought I could do just a little short podcast that’s just me, so I don’t have to coordinate people. And, it could be just a short writing tip because clearly there are people who need refreshers and would like the help, but nobody wants to read a grammar book.”
What began as a hobby of teaching people the differences between “who” and “whom” or “it’s” and “its” soon led to a legion of devotees.
“It was crazy,” she said. “Within about three or four weeks the show was already in the top 100 in iTunes, just based on word of mouth.”
Since July 2006, the Grammar Girl podcast has been downloaded somewhere between 25 and 27 million times. Each month, the podcast averages more than a million downloads. What’s more, after the initial podcast success, Fogarty’s first book, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips to Better Writing, made the New York Times bestseller list in its first week. Today, her devotees on Twitter have grown to roughly 23,000 followers and she has almost 7,500 fans on Facebook.
Then, she appeared on the Oprah show, a true measure of success, to be sure. A viewer believed the title, “Oprah and Gayle’s Big Adventure” was incorrect; it should read: “Oprah’s and Gayle’s Big Adventure.”
Fogarty saved the day. “So it’s Oprah and Gayle’s car,’” Fogarty said. “They go on the same road trip, they share the same car, they share the same apostrophes. If Oprah and Gayle have two different things, it is correct to use two possessives, such as, “Oprah’s and Gayle’s political views.”
It’s called compound possession.Quick and dirty
Fogarty begins her podcasts with a friendly “Grammar Girl here” greeting, eliciting a warm feeling about learning grammar—a feat often tried and failed by the most well-meaning English teachers. The podcasts do not go past 10 minutes in length, which make them like tiny doses of easy-to-swallow knowledge. The same is true for her books and audiobooks. Each tip or trick lasts no longer than a minute or two—for reading or listening.
Fogarty’s hope is to present grammar so it becomes approachable and fun. She references more than a dozen grammar books, always filtering out the unnecessary knowledge to create a “Quick and Dirty” tip. She’s not harsh or arrogant, but maybe, she admits, she could be. Maybe that way she would have sold more books. But that’s not Grammar Girl’s style. As USA Today writes, Fogarty is “authoritative but warm.”
On her website, she has a cartoon avatar of herself, complete with her iconic librarian glasses, green sweater and red hair. As she sat in front of me, the picture came to life, except this time she wore a lavender cable-knit sweater. Fogarty is Grammar Girl, and Grammar Girl is Fogarty. She’s been trudging through grammar wars like everyone else, finding ways to learn the necessary but lost art of accurate and grammatically correct writing.
“I find it shocking that I have an undergraduate degree in English, and I never took a grammar class. It’s not part of the curriculum,” she says. “The last time I took a grammar class was in the sixth grade, and that’s true for most people.”
It’s no wonder people gravitate toward Grammar Girl. “I have people write me to say that they were beaten by nuns for splitting infinitives,” she says. “But I’m fun and accessible, and that’s why people like it.”
Fogarty’s new book is The Grammar Devotional: Daily Tips for Successful Writing from Grammar Girl. “You can start the book any time of the year,” she says. “It’s broken out by weeks and days, so it’s meant to go one day at a time, kind of like a religious devotional.”
Beginning with Week One, Monday, the book guides readers on the same perplexing grammar rules we have all grown to forget and hate. Take “assume” and “presume” (hint: think Dr. Livingstone) or “capital” and “capitol.” Along the way there are also word puzzles, quizzes and mini-lessons on “Language Rock Stars.”
“If you’re going to be a writer you should know who these people are,” says Fogarty. “As important as learning that you shouldn’t use ‘snuck,’ you should use ‘sneaked,’ maybe it’s important to know who the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary was, and why he was so important.”
It’s funny that Fogarty sees such a positive response from people on a subject loathed by so many. But she still finds that people need help. There are more bloggers than ever before. Email is becoming a constant spelling and grammar test. Writers everywhere are in constant need of grammar help. There’s a tip for every day of the year, but not surprisingly, Fogarty has already begun work on her third book. Because, Fogarty says, there are thousands of rules to remember and learn.