The Glamour of Grammar

A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English


By Roy Peter Clark

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Early in the history of English, the words “grammar” and “glamour” meant the same thing: the power to charm. Roy Peter Clark, author of Writing Tools, aims to put the glamour back in grammar with this fun, engaging alternative to stuffy instructionals. In this practical guide, readers will learn everything from the different parts of speech to why effective writers prefer concrete nouns and active verbs.

The Glamour of Grammar gives readers all the tools they need to”live inside the language” — to take advantage of grammar to perfect their use of English, to instill meaning, and to charm through their writing. With this indispensable book, readers will come to see just how glamorous grammar can be.


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Embrace grammar as powerful and purposeful.

My first rock 'n' roll record, a heavy 78 rpm vinyl disk, was "Hound Dog" by Elvis Presley. Most of the adults I knew thought that rock was "the devil's music," the pathway to moral degeneracy and juvenile delinquency. Even worse, they thought it would screw up our grammar. When they heard the King growl "You ain't nothin' but a hound dog," the grown-ups would holler: "There ain't no such word as 'ain't.'" Not to mention that double negative: "Well, if you ain't nothin', then you must be somethin'."

Back then, our parents and teachers subscribed to the school of grammar we all learned in, well, grammar school. They framed grammar as a strict set of rules we must master in order to use language "correctly." I did not know it then, but this school of grammar had a name. It was called prescriptive because it prescribed proper ways to use the English language.

I was an eighth grader at St. Aidan School in 1961, the year Webster's Third included the word ain't—without disapproval—for the first time. The conservators of language were outraged, denouncing the dictionary as a glorification of ignorance, and its editors as "permissive." But the Webster's team was doing nothing more or less than taking note of the way people actually used the language. These lexicographers were members of the descriptive school because they described the language used in spoken and written English.

More than a half century later, the grammar wars rage on, with the prescribers and describers professing antagonistic visions of what constitutes grammar, how it is learned, and how it should be taught. It is in this contentious context that I offer for your consideration The Glamour of Grammar.

If you are holding this book in your hands, it means that the English language lives inside you. That is a wonderful gift, one that many of you learned from the cradle, one that will grow with you until you whisper "Rosebud" or whatever your final word happens to be. But you have an even greater power at your fingertips. It comes not when your language lives inside you, but when you begin to live inside your language.

To help you live that life, this book invites you to embrace grammar in a special way, not as a set of rules but as a box of tools, strategies that will assist you in making meaning as a reader, writer, or speaker. Living inside the language requires a grammar of purpose, a grammar of effect, a grammar of intent. This type of grammar puts language into action. It doesn't shout at you, "No, no, no," but gives you a little push and says, "Go, go, go." This type of grammar enables us to practice the three behaviors that mark us as literate human beings: it helps us write with power, read with a critical eye, and talk about how meaning is made.

These reflections lead me to the purpose of this book's fabulous title, The Glamour of Grammar. At first glance, the phrase must seem oxymoronic, as paradoxical as a sequined pocket protector. Was there ever in the popular imagination a word less glamorous than grammar? But what if I were to tell you that at one time in the history of our language, grammar and glamour were the same word? Need proof? Let's consult the Oxford English Dictionary.

The bridge between the words glamour and grammar is magic. According to the OED, glamour evolved from grammar through an ancient association between learning and enchantment. There was a time when grammar described not just language knowledge but all forms of learning, which in a less scientific age included things like magic, alchemy, astrology, even witchcraft.

Evan Morris, editor and publisher of "The Word Detective," leads us through the maze:

"Glamour" and "Grammar" are essentially the same word. In classical Greek and Latin, "grammar" (from the Greek "grammatikos," meaning "of letters") covered the whole of arts and letters, i.e., high knowledge in general. In the Middle Ages, "grammar" was generally used to mean "learning," which at the time included, at least in the popular imagination, a knowledge of magic. The narrowing of "grammar" to mean "the rules of language" was a much later development, first focusing on Latin, and only in the 17th century extended to the study of English and other languages.

Meanwhile, "grammar" had percolated into Scottish English (as "gramarye"), where an "l" was substituted for an "r" and the word eventually became "glamour," used to mean specifically knowledge of magic and spells.

Even though the association between grammar and glamour is surprising, it's not hard to find a trail of connections leading to modern usage. In popular gothic stories detailing the misadventures of witches and vampires, the word glamor (without a u)—as both a noun and a verb—describes a magic spell that puts someone in a trance or makes a person forget. When we see a glamorous movie star walking down a red carpet, don't we sometimes hear the words magical, alluring, and enchanting?

The word grammar has taken a bit of a nosedive since the days when some tipsy scholar north of Hadrian's Wall mixed up his r's with his l's. Today grammar connotes everything unglamorous: absentminded professors; fussy schoolteachers; British grammazons with binding names like Lynne Truss; nagging perfectionists; pedantic correctionists; high-school students asleep at their desks, stalactites of drool hanging from their lips. Long lost from grammar are associations with power, magic, enchantment, and mystical energy.

I've written The Glamour of Grammar so that you can feel that energy and put it to use. You will be guided by the broadest definition of grammar possible, used here to include pronunciation, spelling, punctuation, syntax, usage, lexicography, etymology, language history, diction, semantics, rhetoric, literature, and poetics. Words and definitions that now seem strange to you will become familiar and practical.

I've organized the grammar tools into these simple parts, extending from the subatomic level of language to the meta-physical:

Part One. Words: These tools deal with the smallest units of meaning: sounds, letters, symbols, words that help turn thought into language. You'll discover that no distinction is too small, that parts of speech can cross-dress, and that language is a source of limitless creativity.

Part Two. Points: To work together, words need help. They need connecting words, and they need punctuation. All methods of punctuation point the way for the reader, gathering, linking, separating, and emphasizing what truly matters. These marks are more than squiggles on the page. They are the ligaments of meaning and purpose.

Part Three. Standards: To make meaning with clarity and consistency, users of language lean on conventions, sets of informal agreements about what constitutes proper and improper usage. Violations of these are often perceived as errors. But to describe these standards as "rules" is to underestimate their value. As "tools" they offer strategic options for the speaker, reader, and writer.

Part Four. Meaning: Most human beings are born with the capacity to create an infinite number of sentences, each with the potential to capture meaning in a powerful way. While the number of sentences may be limitless, their forms are limited enough so that we can master them and influence how meaning is made and how it is experienced in the minds of an audience.

Part Five. Purpose: The tools of language, it turns out, are morally neutral, which is to say that good people can use them for good effects, and bad people can use them to lie, exploit, even to enslave. Living inside the language enables you to use grammar with a mission, to embrace ways of reading, writing, and speaking that inspire virtues such as justice, empathy, and courage.

With its practical and purposeful approach, The Glamour of Grammar tries to make grammar useful and memorable. Every little lesson in this book points to an immediate application. A feature called "Keepsakes" ends each chapter, reviewing the most important points in ways that can be saved, savored, and remembered, and offering a few fun exercises. Why learn grammar if you're not going to use it with intent? Why spell except to symbolize spoken words and avoid distracting the reader? Why punctuate except to point the reader toward pace, emphasis, and meaning? Why learn to identify subjects and verbs unless you can join them to achieve a specific effect?

I hope that this rhetorical grammar will help you grow in confidence and understanding so that you can master the rules, turn them into tools, and use those tools to break the rules with a purpose. On the inside, language will feel like muscle, not magic. I hope you will come to identify with my enthusiasm (a word that once meant "to have God in you"), just as I identify with lovers of the language such as Bryan A. Garner, author and editor of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, who in my opinion is an apostle of a grammar of intent:

The reality I care about most is that some people will want to use the language well. They want to write effectively; they want to speak effectively. They want their language to be graceful at times and powerful at times. They want to understand how to use words well, how to manipulate sentences, and how to move about in the language without seeming to flail. They want good grammar, but they want more: they want rhetoric in the traditional sense. That is, they want to use the language deftly so that it's fit for their purposes. [my emphasis]

That paragraph makes the perfect distinction between rules and tools. It helps me understand that my interests in the technical aspects of language extend beyond simple correctness. I want to use these tools for effect, to help the reader learn, laugh, cringe, and turn the page.

For the lover of language, lessons come from everywhere, as British novelist and scholar David Lodge describes: "That is why a novelist… must have a very keen ear for other people's words… and why he cannot afford to cut himself off from low, vulgar, debased language; why nothing linguistic is alien to him, from theological treatises to backs of cornflakes packets, from the language of the barrack room to the language of, say, academic conferences." I got that message, even at age eight, when my teacher was Elvis Presley. By age thirteen, I was buried in hagiography and pornography; treatises on politics and stories about vampires; holy cards and baseball cards; scholarly books and comic books; the highest and the lowest our culture had to offer. I was living inside the English language.



Living inside the language requires a love of words: the sound of words in the air, the sight of words on the page or screen, the feelings and images created by words in our hearts and heads. Words can even stimulate our senses; I can almost smell pungent, taste honeycomb, touch sandpaper.

In the practical world of language, many people want to become more literate. They want to read with insight, write with persuasive power, and speak with some authority. For such a person, words fly in all directions—from head to hands, from page to eyes, from mouth to ear, from ear and eye to head—in a brilliant recursive spiral that defines our humanity and, for believers, our share of divinity.

"In the beginning was the Word," says the Bible. "The word is love," sang the Beatles. Groucho Marx told his quiz-show contestants: "Say the secret word [pronounced "woid"] and win a prize." What's the word? Word up! Word to your mother. The word word derives from the Latin verbum, which gives us verb, verbal, and for the windy among us verbose.

Some words, cathedral, for example, are large and spectacular, while others, on or off, are small and functional, barely noticeable in a text. But if you love words, no word is insignificant. No part of a word can be changed without some impact, even if it's just a brief recognition of an alternate spelling.

This section begins with that great storehouse of words, the dictionary. We then turn to letters, how they make smooth sailing possible through spelling, and how, over time, they seem to take on lives of their own, almost independent of the words they form.

Synonyms are stored in a thesaurus, a word that means "treasury." A thesaurus is a resource that can teach us new words and, more important, help us recall ones we already know. We explore the roles words play in order to make meaning, roles commonly called parts of speech. But, as you'll see, words can jump from role to role, sometimes in the same sentence.

There is no expression of language too small to spark the curiosity of the literate human being. Words can sound the same or almost the same, and be gathered or invented, the result of creative mistakes. Words can be long or short, English or foreign, amazing products of a history of usage that goes back thousands of years.


Read dictionaries for fun and learning.

To live inside the language, I need the help of my two favorite dictionaries, which I will cite throughout this book: the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED) and the American Heritage Dictionary (or AHD). These two lexicons keep the history of our language at my fingertips, with the OED showing me where English has been and the AHD where it's headed.

It was from the OED that I first learned, to my shock and delight, that the words grammar and glamour were related. It was 1971 when a professor sent us on a language scavenger hunt so we could get our hands on that twelve-volume "dictionary based upon historical principles." This means that along with spellings, definitions, pronunciations, and parts of speech, the OED—thanks to the work of thousands of volunteers over seventy years—provides the word hunter with 1,827,306 examples of how and when the words came to be used in the English language, according to Simon Winchester, author of The Meaning of Everything.

So what? So let's say the president of the United States uses the word crusade to build support for an American war against fanatics in the Middle East. You hear this or read it and have a gut feeling that it is not a wise word for the president to use, but you are not sure why. You decide to write about it, but first things first. As my mentor Don Fry would command: "Look it up in the OED!"

Here's what you would find: The earliest known use of the word crusade in English appears in a historical chronicle dated 1577 and refers to the holy wars waged by European Christians in the Middle Ages "to recover the Holy Land from the Mohammedans." Thirty years later, the word expands to define "any war instigated and blessed by the Church." By 1786 the word is being used even more broadly to describe any "aggressive movement or enterprise against some public evil." As luck would have it, the historical citation is expressed by a president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, who encouraged a correspondent to "Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance."

Move forward in history to the forty-third president, George W. Bush, who promises a "crusade" against fanatics who attacked the United States on September 11, 2001. Those terrorists happened to be Islamic extremists waging their own jihad, or holy war, against American and European forces they call "the crusaders." With this new knowledge, perhaps you will justify the president's use of crusade by citing Jefferson's secular example. Or perhaps you will cite the perils, as I did, of unintentionally evoking a dangerous historical precedent marked with a cross, the symbol of the crusaders.

A quarter hour of such language research lays a foundation on which to build an argument.

From glamour to grammar, from crusade to crusado, the OED can serve you as a time machine of language, not merely to satisfy nostalgic curiosity or a narrow intellectual interest but to set you down in the history of your language, providing valuable context, to assist you in your contemporary pursuit of meaning.

I confess intolerance for dichotomous thinking. When it comes to red-state versus blue-state politics, I'm a little bit purple. When the phonics reading zealots wage war against the "whole language" hordes, I stand on the fifty-yard line and shake my head. In a country versus rock debate, call me rockabilly. My favorite ice cream? Neapolitan. And when antagonists of descriptive and prescriptive grammar stand nose to nose, I grab the American Heritage Dictionary and hug it like a blanket.

The AHD offers a pragmatic reconciliation between "you must" and "you can," thanks to a feature called the Usage Panel, a group of two hundred (originally one hundred) professional users of language who are consulted to discover their language opinions, which, of course, change over time. In simple terms, the editors of the AHD poll the panel to get a sense of its preferences. Writers can then make informed judgments when choosing one word or phrase over another.

In the beginning (1969), AHD editor William Morris explained:

To furnish the guidance which we believe to be an essential responsibility of a good dictionary, we have frequently employed usage-context indicators such as "slang," "nonstandard," or "regional." But going beyond that, we asked a panel of 100 outstanding speakers and writers a wide range of questions about how the language is used today, especially with regard to dubious or controversial locutions. After careful tabulation and analysis of their replies, we have prepared several hundred usage notes to guide readers to effectiveness in speech and writing. As a consequence, this Dictionary can claim to be more precisely descriptive, in terms of current usage levels, than any heretofore published—especially in offering the reader the lexical opinions of a large group of highly sophisticated fellow citizens.

The popular, self-proclaimed "Grammar Girl" Mignon Fogarty points out in The Grammar Devotional that the publisher of the AHD, James Parton, created his new dictionary because he so loathed what he considered the permissive changes in Webster's Third. "Yes," writes Fogarty, "the American Heritage Dictionary and its usage panel exist because of passions over perceived intolerable faults in Webster's Third." You can detect a bit of that history in editor Morris's skillful juxtaposition of the word "descriptive" and his characterization of the panel members as "highly sophisticated fellow citizens." In other words: Teachers and parents, fear not. The rabble is not controlling our choices and recommendations.

Let's look at one of the battleground words for describers and prescribers: hopefully. No one objects to the word when it is used as a standard adverb modifying a verb: "He marched hopefully across the stage to receive his diploma." The intended meaning is "He marched with hope." But hopefully is now more often used as something called a sentence adverb. An anxious parent might say, "Hopefully, he marched across the stage…," meaning "I hope he marched across the stage." Given that possibility, the listener may experience an unintended ambiguity. We can't tell whether the student or the parent had the hope. So should you ever use hopefully as a sentence adverb? Not according to a majority of the Usage Panel: "It might have been expected… that the initial flurry of objections to hopefully would have subsided once the usage became well established. Instead, critics appear to have become more adamant in their opposition. In the 1969 Usage Panel survey, 44 percent of the Panel approved the usage, but this dropped to 27 percent in our 1986 survey." On the other hand, 60 percent of that 1986 panel approved the use of mercifully as a sentence adverb in: "Mercifully, the game ended before Notre Dame could add another touchdown to the lopsided score." If I am to be guided by the Usage Panel, I find mercifully in play, but hopefully out.

I still confuse different from and different than. The Usage Panel comes to the rescue: "Different from and different than are both common in British and American English…. Since the 18th century, language critics have singled out different than as incorrect, though it is well attested in the works of reputable writers. According to the traditional guidelines, from is used when the comparison is between two persons or things: My book is different from yours. Different than is more acceptably used… where the object of comparison is expressed by a full clause: The campus is different than it was 20 years ago."

Who knew you could vote on grammar and usage? But that is exactly how the Usage Panel reaches a decision, a liberating process that makes transparent the quirky human path to conventional usage.


•  The Oxford English Dictionary tells you where the English language has been; the American Heritage Dictionary helps you understand where it is headed.

•  The OED is based on historical principles, which means that the earliest examples of a word's use are included with the definition.

•  The AHD is a descriptive lexicon with an escape hatch. It includes nonstandard uses of a word but offers advice on appropriate usage through a panel of language experts.

•  In addition to the Usage Panel, the AHD includes these features: marginal photos and other pictorial images that help you visualize, learn, and remember a word; most of the obscene and profane words omitted by the OED, that most proper and Victorian lexicon; the names of noteworthy people and places, giving it a bit of an encyclopedic feel; explanatory blocks that describe interesting word histories; lists of synonyms, with advice on how to distinguish among shades of meaning.

•  For the record, my publisher follows Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.


Avoid speed bumps caused by misspellings.

This chapter will help you remember why good spelling matters, how it can mean the difference between public and pubic. But first let me sit in wonder at another link between language and enchantment. Just as we learned that the word glamour was a corrupted form of grammar, connected by the use of prescribed language as a magical charm, so now we must confront the ancient associations between the spelling of a word and the casting of a spell.

The word spell has many important meanings in the history of our language, most of them related to the idea of story, tale, or news. We know, for example, that the word gospel translates from the Old English to "good news" or "good tidings." All the modern meanings of spell derive from those traditional associations.

Consider these definitions of spell from the OED:

as a verb: "To name or set down in order the letters of (a word or syllable); to enunciate or write letter by letter; to denote by certain letters in a particular order"

as a noun: "A set of words, a formula or verse, supposed to possess occult or magical powers; a charm or incantation; a means of accomplishing enchantment or exorcism"

The word appears in both senses, and others, in a number of William Shakespeare's plays.

Language and magic. Where is the connection? Think about it this way: when we form letters to write words, we create something out of nothing, so that the still air or the empty space on a page fills with meaning, as if a wizard created a blizzard from a clear blue sky.

But if spelling has the power to express, misspellings have the power to distract and confound. We know that the spelling of a word is arbitrary, a social agreement based on precedent and convention. British spellers prefer programme, centre, cheque, and humour to the conventional American spellings. And how do you spell butterfly? Well, if you are Spanish, you spell it mariposa; if you are French, you watch a papillon flutter by. An English professor once asked a class, "How important can spelling be if the family of Shakespeare, the greatest writer in our culture, spelled his name forty-four different ways?" But, as you are about to see, incorrect spelling—a single missing or misplaced letter—can make all the difference in the world, can turn art into an ars.

When I was just a little writer—skinny, myopic, prepubescent, growing up in a New York suburb—I began to feel the first tremors of emerging manhood, and I felt them most powerfully in the presence of a local teenage girl whose nickname was Angel Face. She even wore a brown leather jacket with that name embroidered across the back.

Truth be told, she did have the face of a 1950s-style teen cherub: bright blue eyes framed by a pixie hairdo; a button nose; a little bow of a mouth painted bright red. Along with the leather jacket, she wore pedal pushers, those ultratight forerunners of capri pants.

Each day Angel Face would strut down the hill past my house, and I would spot her, like a bird-watcher, through the picture window. One day this reverie vanished with the sudden appearance of my mother, who snuck up behind me and pierced the bubble of my fantasy with this crack:

"Huh. There goes old Angle Face."

"You mean Angel Face," I snapped.

"Take another look, buddy boy, that stupid little juvenile delinquent misspelled her name on her jacket."


On Sale
Aug 16, 2010
Page Count
304 pages
Little Brown Spark

Roy Peter Clark

About the Author

Roy Peter Clark is senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, one of the most prestigious schools for journalists in the world. A writer who teaches and a teacher who writes, he has authored or edited twenty books on writing and journalism, including Writing Tools, Murder Your Darlings, and The Art of X‑Ray Reading.

Learn more about this author