Book Review: May I Quote You On That?

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It has been quite a while since I reviewed a book about usage and grammar on this site. The only thing to set such books apart is the formatting and the title. The content is usually the same.

A new guide from the Oxford Press is no exception to the charge of sameness of information. However, the colloquial writing style and the quotations used to illustrate usage add a dimension that will be especially valuable to ESL learners and struggling native speakers.

It’s also a treat for those of us who have mastered basic grammar, but still enjoy reading about the language.

The book is May I Quote You on That? A Guide to Grammar & Usage by Stephen Spector, OUP, 2015.

I knew from Chapter One, “What Is Standard English, and Who Gets to Decide What’s Proper English Today?” that Spector is my kind of English professor. His goal is to illuminate standard English usage, but he’s not dismissive of the way most of us actually speak:

[Standard English ] is the level of communication that people normally use in the news media, government, and other leading national institutions, and it’s the type of English that we learn in school. […] It’s widely understood, but people use it mainly in writing, not speech. When we speak, most of us use a regional English, or a mixture of regional and standard Englishes.

Spector notes at the outset that rules of Standard English are not necessarily permanent, but reflect a consensus among literate speakers at a given time. He engages the user of the book in the ongoing process of weighing current professional opinion about usage in order to arrive at informed usage on a personal level.

Chapter Two is a review of basic grammar terms.

Chapter Three discusses such topics as the correct use of pronoun forms and grammatical number. It also deals with “tricky words” like less and fewer, like and as, and alternate and alternative.

Chapter Four discusses more “tricky words,” but these are words that have either been introduced since 1900 or have undergone changes in spelling or meaning.

Chapter Five is dedicated to “look-alike words.” These are the sorts of words I write about in “words commonly confused” posts. For example: adverse/averse, affect/effect, fortuitous/fortunate, route/rout, set/sit, etc.

Chapter Six gives a thorough treatment of the formation of English plurals.

As this brief overview shows, the content of May I Quote You is no different from what can be found in most grammar books or in the DWT archives. What makes the book stand out is the way the content is presented.

All English teachers collect quotations to illustrate usage, but Professor Spector has to be the greatest quotation collector of all time. During several decades of teaching English to college students, he has put together an enormous collection of quotations, not only gems from long-dead authors of English classics, but the utterances of athletes, actors, and other cultural celebrities. Browsing this grammar book is as much fun as spending time at Brainyquote.

The book is a collection of lessons. Instead of beginning each lesson with a rule or definition, Spector begins with quotations drawn from the writing or speech of (mostly) native speakers.

For example, he begins his explanation of nouns in Chapter Two with these quotations:

Man was made at the end of the week’s work, when God was tired. —Mark Twain.

I’m not a member of any organized party—I am a Democrat. —Will Rogers.

You can lead a man to Congress, but you can’t make him think. —Milton Berle.

Cricket is basically baseball on Valium. —Robin Williams.

These four quotations, in which each noun has been underlined in the book, are then used to illustrate the part of speech called noun.

This is the logical way to present language. It is how we all learn our native language: speech first, explanations afterwards.

Some of the explanations are fairly lengthy. For example, Spector’s discussion of the split infinitive in Chapter Three covers two and a half pages. The impatient reader can skim the arguments and just read Spector’s advice, which stands out in boldface type.

The advantage of peppering the lessons with funny and often profound quotations is that some of them will lodge in the mind of the student. Then, because they’ve been internalized, they anchor the usage they illustrate in the memory.

A really cool bonus to the book is a website that contains practice drills.

The only thing I don’t like about May I Quote You on That? is the texture of the cover. I’ve noticed this type of cover on several paperbacks I’ve bought recently. I believe it’s what’s called “a matte finish.” Some readers seem to like it, but to me, it feels sticky and unpleasant.

Other than that, I’m pleased to add Professor Spector’s entertaining and useful style guide to my collection.

English teachers looking for a text that may appeal to grammar-phobic students are encouraged to take a look at this one.

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