Believe it or not, in the history of the English language grammar and glamour were once the same word.  Derived from the same Greek and Latin roots, the two were connected through an association between learning and enchantment.  In his recent book The Glamour of Grammar Roy Peter Clark seeks to re-glamorize grammar for a modern audience.  Clark is a man of many hats: medievalist, journalist, writing coach.  As the “About the Author” section notes, Dave Barry has said of him, “Roy Peter Clark knows more about writing than anybody I know who is not currently dead.”  If The Glamour of Grammar is any indication, he knows more about writing than a good many dead people, too.

The book is divided into five parts, moving from the most basic units to the big picture.  Part I focuses on WORDS.  No element of composition is too insignificant in a writer’s attempt to communicate with readers.  In Clark’s hands, such seemingly minor distinctions as the definite and indefinite articles (“the” vs. “a/an”) take on a much larger role than their small stature would suggest.  Using well-known examples, Clark shows how even the slightest change to a title can have a drastic effect on the feeling it conveys: for example, change the title of the classic movie The Godfather to A Godfather, and you have a completely different mood.

In Part II (POINTS), Clark discusses punctuation marks.  The preceding sentence most likely elicited a yawn from most readers, but Clark manages to show in an engaging way just how much work something as simple as a period – or a “full stop,” as the Brits call it (and as Clark prefers) – can do for one’s writing.  From the period to the serial comma to the sexy semi-colon to the exclamation point, Clark teaches how to bring one’s writing to life with these little jots and squiggles.

Part III (STANDARDS) addresses what grammarians commonly refer to as “rules.”  Clark eschews the tendency to reify these standards into unbendable rules, finding an elegant balance between descriptive and prescriptive accounts of language.  Writers must learn the “rules” of grammar before they can bend or break them to good effect.  The “rules” thus become “tools” that can be deftly applied in the hands of a skilled artisan.

The final two parts of the book (MEANING and PURPOSE) tackle the larger questions of writing.  In Part IV Clark explores what makes for a good sentence.  Along the way he challenges some of the most common pieces of writing advice – avoid the passive voice, never use sentence fragments – while at the same time demonstrating the wisdom of standards such as keeping subject and verb together.  Part V addresses the reasons for writing and the complex social, cultural, and political implications of word choice, dialect, taboo language, and a host of other decisions a writer must make.  The final chapter discusses new technologies, showing how even a 140-character Twitter message can crackle with elegance and style.

The Glamour of Grammar is a good read for many reasons.  Clark presents his instructions with a hefty dose of humor, and he often models the style he is teaching.  To take but one example, the following paragraph appears in the chapter on the question mark:

“But who was Question Mark?  And how did he become one of the godfathers of the punk rock movement?  And why am I asking these questions in a book about grammar and language?  The answer has to do with the extraordinary power of the question mark.” (89-90)

I also found Clark’s advice to be practical and balanced.  Challenging the “grammazons” (his lovely neologism for hardline grammarians), he affirms the usefulness of standards, but also the freedom a writer must have to buck the rules – but only once the writer understands them.  Perhaps more impressively, he manages to explain these rules effectively without relying on grammatical jargon, no doubt a necessary tactic to restore grammar to its state of glamour.

Finally, Clark is not afraid to wander into the realm of theology, grounding the beauty and richness of language not only in human evolution but also in the divine.  He manages to do so without coming off as preachy (a hard charge to stick to a man who uses the movie The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet as an illustration), and yet it comes across as genuine, and therefore genuinely moving.  The Glamour of Grammar deserves to be on the shelf of any serious – and not-so-serious – writer.  Read it for pleasure, read it for learning, but, most of all, read it to make your writing glamorous.

Thirteen down, (at least) thirty-nine to go.  (1/4 of the way there!)