Mignon Fogarty Interview: Life and Times of the Grammar Girl
Image attributed to David Calvert
Mignon Fogarty is the creator of Grammar Girl and the founder and managing director of the educational podcast entitled Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, which promotes the proper use of the English language. A magazine writer, technical writer and entrepreneur, she has served as a senior editor and producer at a number of health and science websites. She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in Biology from Stanford University.
Grammar Girl provides short, friendly tips to improve your writing. Covering the grammar rules and word choice guidelines that can confound even the best writers, Grammar Girl makes complex grammar questions simple with memory tricks to help you recall and apply those troublesome grammar rules. Whether English is your first language or second language, Grammar Girl’s punctuation, style and business tips will make you a better and more successful writer.
"I like to think that even when you see people writing sloppy things on Facebook that deep down they really do know the rules, and if they were taking more care, they could do it right. That is what I saw with my students, too. I was happily thrilled with the quality of the papers they turned in. On their day-to-day assignments, they have been sloppier, but when they took the time to sit down and work on what they viewed as an important paper, the quality of the writing really went up. I think that is true on social media."
Fogarty has written seven books on language, including a New York Times bestseller and is founder of Quick and Dirty Tips network – one of the earliest, largest and most successful podcasting networks. In addition to her Grammar Girl duties, Fogarty has recently been hired as the Chair in Media Entrepreneurship at the Donald W. Reynolds School of Journalism and Center for Advanced Media Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Mignon, thanks for taking the time today. If you haven’t guessed, I live in the South (laughs).
Mignon Fogarty: (laughs) I love regional dialect! I bet you say, “y’all,” and I bet it sounds adorable! But it’s fascinating. The shows I do about regional dialect, regional words and things like that are always popular.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You have such an unusual, pretty name.
Mignon Fogarty: It’s actually a family name. I was named after a flower called the Mignonette. It was apparently my great great grandmother’s favorite flower, and she named her daughter Mignonette. A few other women in my family were given the name, and it got shortened somewhere along the way to Mignon. It’s a tiny white ground cover that is apparently very fragrant. I’ve only seen pictures of the heirloom seeds, but that’s where the name comes from.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Interesting. Where were you born?
Mignon Fogarty: I was born and grew up in the suburbs of Seattle, Washington, up in the rainy Pacific Northwest, but I’m living in Reno now.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’re currently a journalism professor?
Mignon Fogarty: I am. I’m the Chair in Media Entrepreneurship in the School of Journalism.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Does that job cut into your time as Grammar Girl?
Mignon Fogarty: (laughs) It has been a tough year trying to balance both things. This was my first year doing both, and I’m taking this summer to try to get more help with Grammar Girl. I’m bringing on some new guest writers and learning to delegate better. I’m not the world’s best delegator, but I just have to in order to make it work, so that’s part of my summer plan while school is out, to get Grammar Girl under control.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What’s the most difficult part of teaching for you?
Mignon Fogarty: I taught undergrads for the first time last semester, and I’m used to speaking at conferences where people are always really excited to be there and know they can take what they’re learning back to work the next week and use it. With undergrads, they need a lot more convincing that what you’re teaching them matters, and that was a surprise to me, although it shouldn’t have been.
I should’ve remembered what it was like to be an undergrad, but once you’re an adult, you start thinking, “They’re paying to be here. They chose to take this class.” But it’s just not the same as the kind of people you encounter in professional training environments, which is what I’m more used to.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How do you feel about Common Core?
Mignon Fogarty: I have not encountered Common Core in teaching because I’m at the college level. I reviewed the Common Core requirements because I created an iOS game called Grammar Pop, and I was trying to see how that might fit in with the Common Core requirements. In that game, you match words with their part of speech. It’s really fun.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I have to say that my husband loves that game!
Mignon Fogarty: Oh good! I love it, too. So I reviewed the Common Core requirements to see if we could make claims about whether the game would help students learn those things that are required for Common Core. It would be hard to look at them and not think, “Well yes, of course these are things we should teach kids.” I’m completely unfamiliar with the testing requirements that go with that, and the testing seems to be the big complaint from teachers.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You have a master of science degree. What is your field of study?
Mignon Fogarty: I do. That’s kind of odd (laughs). My undergraduate degree is in English, and then when I graduated, I felt as if I didn’t have anything to write about. I just knew how to write. I became interested in science, biology in particular. After I graduated from college, I went back to school and took a few biology and chemistry classes to make sure I liked it and could do it. I did on both counts, so I ended up volunteering in a lab to get some experience. Then I got into the PhD program at Stanford in genetic cellular and developmental biology. I studied stem cells in fruit flies.
After four years, I ended up feeling that I wasn’t well suited for lab work. I’m really clumsy for one thing (laughs). I dropped out with my masters and went to work with Internet startups in Silicon Valley during the dot-com boom, so it was also very tempting to leave graduate school and ultimately end up working as a science writer and editor combining those two skills. That was before I became Grammar Girl.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you married with kids?
Mignon Fogarty: I am married, but I don’t have kids. My husband is a former entrepreneur, so he’s very understanding about the busy lifestyle.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Why do you think Grammar Girl has become so successful?
Mignon Fogarty: I think that Grammar Girl has a different voice and tone than a lot of grammar advice out there, especially what was out there when I started nine years ago. A lot of the advice tends to be snarky or condescending, or they take glee in pointing out errors, whereas I’m here to help people who want to learn, and I think it’s important to be fun, friendly and non-judgmental.
I’m not the kind of person who always posts pictures of signs with errors and says, “How could people be so stupid?” or “Isn’t this ridiculous?” I take the approach where I just try to tell people the right way to do it if they’re interested and make that fun and enjoyable as opposed to putting people down. I think that’s really important.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’re right. That is different.
Mignon Fogarty: Yeah it is, and it takes people a while to really understand that, but I believe that is why it succeeded.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you personally adhere to the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style in writing?
Mignon Fogarty: I lean toward AP because my background was in journalism. When I was in college and an English major, my emphasis was in journalism, so I grew up on the AP Stylebook. When I’m writing my podcast, I almost always look at both AP and Chicago to come up with my advice, and then if those two don’t agree, I’ll go to additional sources and try to get more of a big picture view.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You can see people using grammar now more than ever before because of the huge popularity of social media. A pet peeve of mine is the run on “thought” that contains no commas or periods. Do you think people have gotten lazy about grammar rules because there’s just so much Facebook posting and texting?
Mignon Fogarty: I like to think that even when you see people writing sloppy things on Facebook that deep down they really do know the rules, and if they were taking more care, they could do it right. That is what I saw with my students, too. I was happily thrilled with the quality of the papers they turned in. On their day-to-day assignments, they have been sloppier, but when they took the time to sit down and work on what they viewed as an important paper, the quality of the writing really went up. I think that is true on social media.
A lot of people are writing updates quickly and on their phones, and they feel that the expectation of quality is much lower. I think if they were typing on a keyboard, they’d be much more likely to capitalize letters that are supposed to be capitalized, for example. I don’t buy in to the idea that texting is hands down ruining everyone’s ability to write properly. I think for some people it may have that effect because it trains them not to take writing seriously. Overall I think most people can grasp the concept that what’s okay in a text message to a friend is not okay in a midterm paper or an important letter to a client.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is there a particular grammar rule that people just blindly ignore?
Mignon Fogarty: The one I see that people say, “I don’t care what the rule is, I’m going to do it the way I want,” has to do with punctuation. In the United States, the hard and fast rule is that we put periods and commas inside closing quotation marks. Every time I post an article about that, I get a smattering at least of comments. People say, “I don’t care what the rule is. That looks stupid. I’m doing it the other way. I’m going to put it on the outside.”
That actually happens with another punctuation thing, too. The current modern rule is to put one space after a period at the end of a sentence, but again, every time I post about that, I get a lot of comments from people who say either they were taught to use two spaces or they just think it looks better with two spaces and they’re just going to use two instead of one.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Another pet peeve of mine is when people use the word “anyways” instead of “anyway.”
Mignon Fogarty: Oh yeah! I do tell people the correct word is “anyway,” not “anyways.” People will ask about “toward” and “towards” and “backward” and “backwards.” Sometimes they get confused because “towards” and “backwards” are the British way of spelling those words. It’s correct in Britain to add the “s” and say “towards” and “backwards.” Sometimes people think that “anyways” must be British, but it’s not. It’s just not a word.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Then there’s the word “ain’t.”
Mignon Fogarty: That has been a contentious word for a long time. When Webster’s Third, the newest edition of the dictionary came out in the 1960s, they softened their advice against using the word “ain’t.” I think it has some sort of sketchy label, but it’s a less sketchy label than it had in the previous edition, and a lot of people flipped out and said that Webster was being too lenient. It was a big deal, and part of it revolved around the way they treated the word “ain’t.” I have an article on my website if anyone is interested in reading further on that subject.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was The Grammar Devotional your last book?
Mignon Fogarty: No. 101 Troublesome Words was my last book. I have seven books out. The Grammar Devotional was the last of the first three, and then I did four books in the 101 series.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What projects are you working on now?
Mignon Fogarty: In addition to getting Grammar Girl generally under control this summer, the only other big project I see on the horizon is that I did a crowdfunding project to make a card game last year called Peeve Wars. I successfully crowdfunded the Peeve Wars card game project, and all those are shipped and everything, but I haven’t taken the game and made it for sale anywhere. It exists. We made it, but we need to find the best way to make Peeve Wars available for sale to people who weren’t part of the crowdfunding project.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What’s your favorite book of all time?
Mignon Fogarty: Oh boy, I’m sure the answer would change from day to day. The one that pops into my head right now is The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. That’s just because last week I was looking up how different writers use semicolons for an article I was writing, and I spent some time flipping through that book from my library and was reminded of how much I loved it when I read it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Does the incorrect usage of semicolons irritate you?
Mignon Fogarty: No, but I love the semicolon, and I feel it’s unfairly maligned (laughs). There’s this quotation from Kurt Vonnegut that is very anti semicolon, and people often will quote it to you if they don’t like semicolons, but it’s taken out of context. If you read the whole essay from which it comes, you’ll see he really wasn’t so adamantly against semicolons. That was the premise of the article I was writing. I was looking at how he used semicolons in his writing, which was rarely, but not never. Then I was looking at famous authors who are considered to be excellent writers who use a lot of semicolons.
Umberto Eco doesn’t use them a lot, but uses them more than Vonnegut. Donna Tartt, who wrote The Goldfinch, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014, uses tons of semicolons. There’s a sentence with a semicolon on almost every page, and I loved that book, too. It was really interesting. I was doing a survey of that and just grabbing books off my shelf to look at semicolon usage, and I was particularly reminded of how much I loved The Name of the Rose. Long answer to a short question (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I love long answers (laughs). Any other interests like guilty pleasure television shows?
Mignon Fogarty: Because I have this new job as the Chair in Media Entrepreneurship, I’ve been paying a lot more attention to everything that’s going on in the media and how people can consume media. My husband and I got a Smart TV about six months ago.
I never watched You Tube videos before, but now that I can sit back and watch them on my Smart TV instead of having to sit at my computer and watch them, I watch far more You Tube videos than I ever have. It’s really interesting how having this new device essentially has changed the way I consume media. I think things like that are just fascinating.
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