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'Grammar Girl' a quick and dirty success

Story Highlights

• Mignon Fogarty created the "Grammar Girl" podcast in July
• It has been as high as number 2 on iTunes
• The podcasts have had more than 1.3 million downloads
By David E. Williams
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(CNN) -- Grammar lessons often are associated with high school drudgery -- diagramming sentences and memorizing obscure rules in between passing notes in English class -- but an Arizona technical writer has turned the seemingly dry subject into a popular podcast.

Mignon Fogarty, the woman behind "Grammar Girl's Quick & Dirty Tips for Better Writing," has been explaining the finer points of commas, colons and split infinitives since July.

She recently weighed in on a dispute over apostrophes that divided the U.S. Supreme Court. Grammar wasn't the issue in the 5-4 decision, but Justice Clarence Thomas referred to "Kansas' statute" in the majority opinion, while Justice David Souter wrote about "Kansas's statute" in the minority.

Fogarty said both men were correct, but that she preferred leaving off the extra s.

"Justice Thomas' name ends with an s, so you might guess that he is more familiar with the issue," she told her audience.

Fogarty, 39, said she got the idea for the podcast, sort of an Internet radio show, during a California vacation. (Interactive: What is podcasting?)

"I was sitting in a coffee shop one day in Santa Cruz, California, on vacation and editing technical documents, because I work on vacation, and found so many grammar errors and it just hit me that grammar was something that I had expertise in that would lend itself to a short tip-based podcast," she said.

The show is currently the 47th most popular podcast on Apple's iTunes service, right behind "Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day." It has been as high as number two, Fogarty said. She said the shows have been downloaded more than 1.3 million times.

Fogarty said she's gotten some publicity, but that most of her audience comes from word of mouth.

"I get e-mails from people who say 'I just discovered your podcast and I've told everyone I work with' or 'I told every teacher at my school,'" she said. "I get a lot of e-mails like that, where people discover it and they just can't wait to tell everybody, which is really cool."

Sara Kearns, a librarian at Kansas State University, has been listening to Grammar Girl since October, and recommended it on the library's blog.

"I listen to Grammar Girl in chunks. A couple of weeks may go by and then I'll listen to 10 of them at a time," Kearns said in an e-mail interview. "The genius of Grammar Girl, apart from her ability to simplify grammar, is that she posts the transcripts so that I can stare at a gnarly piece of grammar until it clicks."

Fogarty said her audience ranges from schoolchildren in China to CEOs in the United States.

"I try to make it fun. I've even had people say 'I'm not that interested in grammar, I don't know why I listen.' But I'm glad that they do," Fogarty said. "I think people like that it's short. It's sort of a low-commitment podcast. And yet they learn something that's useful that they can put to use when they write their next e-mail."

The success of the show prompted Fogarty to produce two more podcasts "Mr. Manners' Quick and Dirty Tips for a More Polite Life" and "Money Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for a Richer Life." She said she's started selling ads and is even getting some interest from book publishers.

One drawback of her work, she said, is that listeners are nervous about writing her.

"I feel bad about that, I don't want people to be afraid to write to me, but about half of my e-mails start with some sort of pre-apology for errors they expect to make," she said.

She said they shouldn't worry, and that she doesn't send back e-mails with big, red correction marks.


Mignon Fogarty has been doing the Grammar Girl podcast since July.


1) Affect vs. Effect: "Affect" is a verb, and "effect" is a noun. The mnemonics "raven" or "avenue" can help you remember: affect verb effect noun.

2) Lay and Lie: In the present tense, people lie down or lay something down. You can remember that the Eric Clapton song "Lay Down Sally" is wrong. To say "lay down Sally" would imply that someone should grab Sally and lay her down. If he wanted Sally to rest in his arms on her own, the correct line would be "lie down Sally." Lay is the past tense of lie.

3) Who and whom: "Whom" refers to the object in a sentence, and "who" refers to a subject in a sentence. It's correct to say "Whom does Sarah love?" ("whom" is the object of Sarah's love) and "Who loves Sarah?" ("who" is the subject of the sentence). It can help to remember that the song "Who do you love?" is wrong.

4) Can I split infinitives? Yes, it is now acceptable to split infinitives. A "full infinitive" is a verb form that has two words, such as "to go," and splitting an infinitive means placing another word between those two words. The most famous split infinitive is "to boldly go where no one has gone before."

--Source: Mignon Fogarty



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