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Podcasting: entercation or edutainment

by John Martin

Reprinted from Technically Speaking, the newsletter of the NCSU student chapter of the STC, by permission of the author and editor.

What do you think about someone you see walking around, or riding the bus, with earbuds in? I've wondered: What song are they listening to? What kind of music are they listening to? I wonder how loud that music is in their ears!

There's a name for that "tinny sound that leaks out of somebody else's iPod." NPR producer Neva Grant calls it "ear spray." But I digress...

Personally, I listen to about as many podcasts on my iPod as I do songs. Often, on a bus, when I literally "LOL" at something in a podcast episode, I wonder if people are wondering what could possibly be so funny about a song. And then I realize that what they're really thinking is, "It's not the song that's a looney-tune."

My newest podcast series subscription is to one called "Grammar Girl," which I found addictive (or is that addicting—see episode no. 16 for the answer) after hearing the first two episodes. What's great about them to me is that they address issues that even the most experienced of writers and editors think about, and they are presented in a most concise manner.

According to her website, "Grammar Girl quietly hides in plain sight as the real-life science writer Mignon Fogarty. She makes her living writing highly technical documents for large biotech companies (e.g., Applied Biosystems) and health articles for websites (e.g., the Stanford Cancer Center). Mignon earned a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and a M.S. in biology from Stanford University. ... Grammar Girl believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study. She strives to be a friendly guide in the writing world."

Her average podcast is less than five minutes in length, and some topics covered so far in the series include:
  • Overuse of the word "of"
  • "i.e." vs. "e.g."
  • "Who" vs. "that" when talking about companies
  • "Which" vs. "that"
  • "Who" vs. "whom"
  • "Effect" vs. "affect"
  • "Among" vs. "between"
  • Split infinitives (She calls this a "grammar myth.")
  • Style guides (Don't work anywhere without one!)
  • Fighting wordiness and investigating idioms
  • "If I were there" vs. "I was there"
  • Which words in a title should be capitalized
  • Ending a sentence with a preposition (Times have changed!)
  • Redundancy with acronyms (e.g., the HIV virus)
  • The difference between acronyms, initialisms, and abbreviations
  • Helpful tips for effective proofreading
  • Single quotation marks vs. double quotation marks
  • Generic singular pronouns (e.g., "he" vs. "she" vs. "one" vs. "s/he," etc.)
  • When to use dashes
  • When to use colons
  • How to identify sentence fragments
  • "Its" vs. "it's"

Grammar Girl is big on mnemonics, and whenever possible, she offers them as a way to remember a certain rule or tip. Here's one she gives to remember the difference between effect and affect: "The arrow affected the aardvark," and "the effect was eye-popping." There are a words in the affect sentence, and e words in the effect sentence.

The other thing that's great about her is that she is not at all pretentious. She freely admits that she's there to provide "quick and dirty" tips. Here's one of them with regards to the use of "who" and "whom": "Like whom, the pronoun him ends with m. When you're trying to decide whether to use who or whom, ask yourself if the answer to the question would be he or him. That's the trick: if you can answer the question being asked with him, then use whom, and it's easy to remember because they both end with m."

She gives an example for better understanding: "If you were asking, ‘Who (or whom) do you love?' the answer would be ‘I love him.' Him ends with m, so you know to use whom. So it's, ‘Whom do you love?'

"But if you were trying to ask, ‘Who (or whom) stepped on Squiggly?' the answer would be, ‘He stepped on Squiggly.' There's no m, so you know to use who. So, it's, ‘Who stepped on Squiggly?'"

Before her quick and dirty tip, of course, she does give the actual grammar rule, in this case: "Use who when you are referring to the subject of a clause, and whom when you are referring to the object of a clause."

Two other things I really like about Grammar Girl's teaching style are that she provides historical context to rules when it might help in learning, and she uses current events as an impetus for some episode topics.

An example of historical context use can be found in her episode on apostrophes, where she says, "An interesting side note is that it doesn't seem so strange that an apostrophe s is used so make words possessive once you realize that in Old English it was common to make words possessive by adding es to the end. For example, the possessive of fox would have been foxes, which was the same as the plural. I assume that caused confusion, and someone suggested replacing the e with an apostrophe to make fox's in the possessive case. So, apostrophe s for the possessive case was initially meant to show that the e was missing, and then the idea caught on and everyone eventually forgot all about the missing e."

With regards to topics around current events, a recent podcast discussed the use of the word is in the Christmas carol line, "The Lord Is Come," another addressed whether Saddam Hussein was hanged or hung, and yet another discussed why people are saying, "Nancy Pelosi is the first woman Speaker of the House," when they would never say, "He was the first man Speaker of the House."

Grammatically inquiring minds want to know!

There is a transcript of each episode on the Grammar Girl website, though she is currently polling her audience as to the value of this time-consuming activity for her. The transcript usually contains two sections at the end, one called "References," which basically contains her citations, and another called, "Further Reading," which contains pointers to articles of interest on the topic, or to the "nitty gritty" of the topic when the "quick and dirty" doesn't tell the whole story.

Grammar Girl is committed to continuously improving her product. She often polls her audience on various ways to improve her episodes, and she is currently working to add "slides" to her podcasts, so that, depending on what kind of "client software" you're using to receive her broadcast, you can see written examples of what she's talking about, which at times would be incredibly helpful. Eventually, she'd like to delve into video as well.

You can listen to Grammar Girl podcasts even if you don't have an mp3 player! Just go to her website, at either qdnow.com or grammar.qdnow.com, and you can listen online!

I, as a technical editor, intend to share this "resource" with the writers for whom I edit. (Even though Grammar Girl says it's okay to end a sentence with a preposition these days, some old habits die hard.)

The official podcast name is "Grammar Girl's Quick & Dirty Tips for Better Writing." All quotes in this article are from Grammar Girl episode transcripts at her Web site at http://qdnow.com .

Page last modified on Friday, November 14, 2008 12:11:15pm EST
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