by Melissa MacAulay
Published at 2023-09-12
Going only by the title and back blurb, my very first impression of Kiss My Asterisk by Jenny Baranick (Skyhorse, 2014) was that I am its ideal reader. As a card-carrying grammar nerd who enjoys a bit of potty humour from time to time, I concluded that I am this book’s exact target demographic. Quickly skimming through its pages, I also spotted near-constant references that only a millennial could truly appreciate: jokes involving Jerry Springer, Sex and the City, the Sweet Valley High series, Paris Hilton, The Wonder Years, and Chuck Norris, just to name a few. Clearly, I thought, this book was written just for me.
As expected, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, both for the grammar and the millennial in-jokes. It soon became obvious, however, that the reader Baranick has in mind is not exactly me (a professional editor). Instead, she is reaching out to readers who are perhaps new to grammar and are looking to improve their professional communication skills—and want to have a laugh in the process!
Throughout her career, Baranick has worked as a writer, an editor, an English instructor, and a writing tutor. In other words, she knows a thing or two about the written word. She also knows that we live in “a very confusing time” for writing. “Facebook,” she says, “is a grammar free-for-all. Instead of curling up with a good book, we now curl up with an iPad. The iPhone adds our apostrophes for us, and might I say, not always correctly … And it’s not all technology’s fault: our public school systems are underfunded and overcrowded” (p. vii).
Early on in the book, Baranick shares some real-life emails that she has received from students over the years. These emails are littered with the kinds of things that would make any teacher cringe: referring to oneself using a lowercase i, writing from email accounts with inappropriate usernames, liberal usage of textspeak, and, of course, spelling errors littered throughout. As Baranick points out, “Sending these emails to [an] English professor pleading for a grade change is like applying for a job at PETA wearing a floor-length fur coat” (p. vi).
But she is not just picking on these students for our own entertainment (although they certainly are entertaining). These emails serve a very noble purpose: they are showcased so that the rest of us may learn from these students’ mistakes. (In a similar vein, see another publication by Baranick, called Sarah Palin's Expert Guide to Good Grammar: What You Can Learn from Someone Who Doesn't Know Right from Write.) In Kiss My Asterisk, Baranick runs through all the errors that she sees most frequently in seventeen short, easy-to-digest chapters, each with its own set of exercises for the reader to complete (as well as an answer key at the back). The hope is that readers who work their way through this book will be able to use their new-found grammar know-how to avoid embarrassing themselves.
Having read quite a few grammar books in my day, I had a good idea of what to expect. It has all the standard material: rules surrounding commas, colons, and semicolons; helpful pointers as to when to capitalize and when to not capitalize certain words; and some discussion of how to identify nouns, verbs, adjectives, and so on. But even if some of us grammar nerds would usually find these lessons a bit basic, Baranick puts her own humorous spin on them using metaphors and comparisons that are both funny and apt.
Grammar itself, for instance, is like oatmeal: “It’s no three-cheese omelet, but it’s good for us” (p. v). Spell check and grammar check, on the other hand, are like vodka: “They are definitely helpful, but shouldn’t be solely relied on to solve our problems” (p. vii).
Even more fun are the lessons on punctuation marks. The apostrophe is compared to a wedding ring, because when words don’t “wear” their apostrophes like they should, we “don’t know if they’re trying to pick up on other words or what,” and “they might be mistaken for their single friends”—e.g., “we’re” vs “were” (pp. 57–58).
Meanwhile, the em-dash is compared to Goldilocks from the well-known fairytale, because “it loves a dramatic entrance and plops itself down wherever it damn well pleases” (p. 72). The ellipsis, on the other hand, is compared to Hester Prynne, the scorned “adulterer” from The Scarlet Letter, because “we treat it like it will punctuate anything, anywhere, anytime” (p. 76).
Throughout the lessons, Baranick manages to address most of my own personal grammar pet peeves. For example, there is a section urging readers not to use “would of,” “should of,” or “could of.” She also explains that the colon, which she compares to a drumroll, should never appear after an incomplete clause (e.g., “My favourite books are: …”). Perhaps most importantly, however, she includes a chapter on general email etiquette, including the importance of proofreading before you click that “send” button!
I’d recommend Kiss My Asterisk to pretty much anyone. Readers who have little grammar expertise will of course benefit from a solid overview of the basics of grammar—just enough to ensure that they are able to present themselves in writing as intelligent and competent to friends, co-workers, potential employers, and, of course, English teachers. Readers born between the years of 1980 and 1995 will enjoy the added benefit of wall-to-wall cheesy pop culture references from their youth. And as for us professional grammar nerds, while we may have seen a lot of this material before, we definitely have not seen it presented quite like this!
Ultimately, as Baranick states in her introduction, “this book is about building your writing confidence … And really, is there anything sexier than the confidence that exudes from a grammatically correct sentence?” (p. viii).
Melissa MacAulay is a freelance academic and non-fiction editor with a PhD in Philosophy. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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