English Grammar For Dummies by Lesley J. Ward and Geraldine Woods (book review).

You know how it is, you look around a book remainder shop and spot a subject that you know something about and decide to have a peek inside and check out an item that you’re familiar with and see if they got it right, which they did, then you wonder about checking out the entire book. I mean, if you’re familiar with the subject, why would you need another book identical to the ones you already own? Even more so, why would you pick up a ‘Dummies’ book on the subject?


Up until now, this is one area of the bookshop shelves I tend not to look at and I suspect that is true of many of you out there as well, mostly because we equate ‘dummies’ with ‘idiots’ and we don’t see ourselves as that. Well, some of us mightn’t and I suspect the ‘Idiots’ title was already taken. Wiley have a successful book range, so presumably there are a lot of people who don’t think anything of the series title but see this as a means to have a subject explained to them in everyday language. In that case, are we subjecting the book series to our own snob value without properly investigating it? Time to get to work.

As an editor and reviewer, I see a lot of bad grammar on a daily basis. A lot of it caused by either not being taught it well or correctly at school or people allowing themselves to get sloppy at understanding the rules, let alone not believing that there aren’t any set rules. Choosing a book on the subject as a suggested read can also be difficult because a lot of the time, the authors can end up getting too technical and lose the reader. Section five of this book can get that way but it’s only really refining details from other sections of the book. Before you’re left wondering or forget, the key subject I checked when looking at the book in the shop was whether they explained the difference between ‘neither’ and ‘either’ correctly and they did with a decent example using both.

With editing, I periodically dig out my grammar books to ensure that I haven’t forgotten anything or got sloppy myself and a little over-due in doing it again, so decided to use the opportunity with ‘English Grammar For Dummies’ by Lesley J. Ward and Geraldine Woods as my refresher course.

I would not recommend reading more than a couple chapters a day or sitting, mostly to let the information you get to sink in and especially to give yourself a chance to work your way through the examples. If you just read it as a normal book, then I expect it will lose its effect. I’ve already noticed some aspects of my writing being affected by it already and if it can affect my editing skills and it will no doubt put a deity’s fear in my reviewers team as much as the rest of you folk reading here. There are both UK and US versions of this book and it looks like the latter came out first.

There are some things that I would raise a query on, especially where they stand on the fence, like with the Oxford comma (that’s putting a comma before ‘and’ which has gotten abused because people do it with every ‘and’) rather than explain how it appeared there in the first place, let alone getting extended to before ‘or’ as well. It wasn’t until the explanation that the US version of this book came out before this edit (sic) for the British version made me think that this was a gentle hint about variants. It’s a shame really that a chapter wasn’t included to compare the differences between British and American grammar, let alone spelling to bridge the gap.

There are places where I might have explained it differently like with contractions, that is, for example, the use of ‘its’ and ‘it’s’. If you say the sense expanding the extraction and it sounds like something what comedian Ernie Wise wrote then its contraction didn’t need an apostrophe. It’s a lot simpler to remember. Using the penultimate sentence example: If you say the sense expanding the extraction and it sounds like something what comedian Ernie Wise wrote then it is contraction didn’t need an apostrophe. Easy really, isn’t it?

Something I practice on the website is ditto marking titles, as you can see four paragraphs up, and something they approve. The authors call this ‘scare quotes’ which I didn’t know had an exact name before. I adopted this because with titles that have ‘and’ in sometimes sound like bits of the sentence than the title and a lot of people scan than read properly on the Net, hence I always felt that there was a need to differentiate the title. To make doubly sure, I cap all the small words in a title as well than let it look like a ransom note and distinguishes it further. This gets tricky with comicbook titles with a hash number so by switching to italics for them in our new website avoids the mess of putting dittos…sorry scare quotes around them. Both are explained well in the book, providing that they are used consistently. Mind you, from what they write, I might have to have a second think about my occasional use of the term ‘sic’.

I do wonder on using colons with dialogue, mostly because I think it will confuse some readers enough to use it too regularly. Apart from that, how do you speak with semi-colons? To be fair, both authors point out it’s better to use shorter than lengthy sentences. I call it pace. If you can’t say a long sentence in a single breath then it needs to be broken up into smaller sentences. If you do long sentences all the time, then you’ll be gasping for breath and so will the reader. Breaking sentences into smaller chunks also ensures the reader absorbs the information. Like the authors, you can’t do it all the time but understanding it is essential for good writing.

Things I didn’t know before. I didn’t know that Japanse place their dates as year, month then day. Something I’ll have to bear in mind in a story where I my setting is Japan in the near future.

There were a couple places, outside of examples, that I thought they missed commas themselves but as any copy editor will tell you, we can’t be absolutely perfect just minimise errors.

I do wonder if people are going to confuse  ellipsis which is…a gap in a sentence with a cut-off like when falling off a clif…

Not quite the same thing and would certainly not need a full stop… . To give it a full stop which would confuse most readers. Not saying their wrong, but just glad it doesn’t turn up too often.

The bane for many people is differentiating between ‘who’ and ‘whom’. I go along with what they say in anything other than dialogue where colloquialism is a forgivable sin and, if anything, is a neat trick to distinguish between that and text.

Oddly, one thing they did break their own demonstrations with was not putting a comma before ‘too’ as it is mostly an addition to a sentence ie eg ‘I came along, too.

If you want some insight into copyediting that Chapter 26 will explain what I do as part of my proofing aspect of being an editor. If anything, it pointed out all the things I do instinctively as a matter of course as being the right. About the only thing I don’t do too often is read backwards but when I’m in super-edit mode I read slowly forward.

Did I learn anything? Oh lots. I’m critical in some places only because I’m not sure what was written in the US version that got carried over to the UK version. If you’re going to take your writing seriously or just so you don’t make faux pas then you really should read either this book or one like it, even if it is as a refresher. The English language has a lot of rules of grammar and you can’t possibly keep them all in your head all the time so checking that you still know them is just good practice.

GF Willmetts

March 2013

(pub: John Wiley. 364 page illustrated indexed softcover. Price: about £ 6.50 (UK) if you know where to look. ISBN: 978-0-470-05752-0)

check out website: www.dummies.com


Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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