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In 1993, the Atlantic Monthly's senior editor Barbara Wallraff began answering grammar questions on America Online. Instantaneously the site became one of AOL's most popular forums, as questions, and responses to Wallraff's responses, came flooding in. This vibrant exchange became the bimonthly "Word Court" in the Atlantic Monthly, and the "Miss Manners of Grammar" was born. In Word Court, Wallraff moves beyond her column to tackle common and uncommon items, establishing rules for such issues as turns of phrase, slang, name usage, punctuation, and newly coined vocabulary. With true wit, she deliberates and decides on the right path for lovers of language, ranging from classic questions-is "a historical" or "an historical" correct?-to awkward issues-How long does someone have to be dead before we should all stop calling her "the late"? Should you use "like" or "as"-and when? The result is a warmly humorous, reassuring, and brilliantly perceptive tour of how and why we speak the way we do.
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Do you find the errors on a menu before the waiter has a chance to recite the specials? Is "Your call will be answered in the order in which it was received" as grating to you as fingernails on a blackboard? Would you cringe if an advertisement for your child's school promised a "low teacher-to-student ratio"? If so, Barbara Wallraff's Word Court is a book without which you cannot live. For seasoned wordsmiths, books about language can entertain; on occasion they may also enlighten. But rare is the book such as this that can teach an old pro so many new tricks, and in such a delightful manner. If you are a reader of Wallraff's "Word Court" column for The Atlantic Monthly, you will have already seen much of what is included here. If not, caveat lector: Though there is an index, this book is arranged in such a way that one may well find oneself reading the proverbial "one more page" long into the night.
"What I know about language," says Wallraff, "derives chiefly from my having edited, line by line and word by word, other people's writing over the past two decades." In Word Court, Wallraff addresses changes in the language, questions of grammar, issues concerning specific words and phrases, and a bunch of other, uncategorizable linguistic concerns. She recommends rewriting in order to avoid problems ("recast, recast"), treading carefully when you don't want controversial word use to obscure your point, and forgiving significant others "for any lapse of grammar committed in a bathrobe, before the coffee is ready." This book is delicious. And I'll bet your first-edition Fowler that Wallraff even introduces a few issues you may never have considered (perhaps the exceptional which, "picnic's grandmother" constructions, or those rare instances in which a sentence's two grammatically independent clauses should not--I repeat, not--be separated by a comma). --Jane SteinbergAbout the Author:
Barbara Wallraff is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly, where she has worked since 1983. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.
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