Roy Peter Clark is on "a self-imposed impossible mission: to help create a nation of readers and writers."
Our Constitution may guarantee us freedom of expression, he says. "But it's no use if you don't have the means to express yourself."
Clark, senior scholar and vice president at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg (which owns the St. Petersburg Times), has made a career of teaching that skill. His latest book is The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English.
"Grammar" and "glamour" in the same title? Clark says he likes the two words "rubbing against each other and our expectations," but, as he writes in the introduction, they actually were once the same word — and both refer to magic:
“(G)lamour 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."
A glamorous movie star is one who casts a spell on us — and "spell," of course, can mean letters in a word or an enchantment. In other words, language has power.
But Clark's fanboy enthusiasm for the Harry Potter books wasn't the inspiration for The Glamour of Grammar. It was his editor's idea.
His last book, Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, was published by Little, Brown in 2006. Clark was "surprised and delighted" by its success, with 80,000 copies in print, and he had a contract to write two more books. He pitched a couple of ideas, one for a book about "the standards and practices of memoir" (inspired by the controversy over James Frey's A Million Little Pieces) and another for a book about transformative reading experiences — his own desire to learn to read as a child, he says, was fired by baseball cards.
No dice. But his editor, Tracy Behar, asked whether he had ever thought of writing a grammar book.
"I think my answer was no," he says. Hauling a hefty, imposing copy of Garner's Modern American Usage from the crammed shelves in his office, he says, "I thought this was what a grammar book looked like."
That was not what he ended up writing. Clark, who has a doctorate in English and has taught writing for 33 years at Poynter to everyone from schoolchildren to Pulitzer Prize winners, says, "I took lots of courses, I read lots of books, I taught lots of classes. I thought I could provide a service by harvesting the most important things I know about writing."
The Glamour of Grammar is a streamlined, accessible, witty book that offers "tools, not rules." Fifty concise chapters focus on the nuts and bolts of grammar and punctuation as well as the more complex territory of style, with bullet-point "keepsakes" at the end. Clark champions the joys of making up new words, straightens out the frequent (and weird) misuse of "literally," and is a coach rather than a scold, encouraging readers to "live inside the language."
He thinks there are many aspiring readers and writers who understand that language has power. "But they don't feel fully inducted into the English language club," he says, because they lack confidence in their own skills.
"The act of picking up a book and reading for pleasure, the act of writing, at whatever level of fluency and efficiency," makes you part of that community of readers and writers, Clark says.
One force that has expanded that community is the Internet, with its tendency to "erase boundaries" between professional and amateur writers.
"In the traditional paradigm, the reporter wrote a story, then it was edited by a professional editor and published by someone rich enough to own all those printing presses," Clark says.
"We know now that a smart 9-year-old can write, can edit it, can illustrate it, can publish it."
A particular effect of digital communication grows out of its emphasis on brevity and clarity. "One person's 140-character tweet is another person's new, interesting literary genre. It's made me more conscious than ever of the power of short writing."
One point Clark makes in The Glamour of Grammar is that we learn our reading and writing skills everywhere, from textbooks to text messages. "Every writer should learn the requirements of standard English, but so many powerful messages are communicated in nonstandard English."
As a child of the 1950s and '60s, Clark saw rock 'n' roll become a powerful voice for a generation.
"There I was in 1957, 9 years old, studying Latin as an altar boy, with some very tough nuns teaching me the parts of speech and correcting my grammar, and at my piano lessons I was playing Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart.
"But my passion was for Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and especially, being a piano player, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. Those were my language teachers.
"Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," he says, emphasizing each word. "How many rules does that one break?"
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs. tampabay.com/arts.