50-for-50 interview: Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl

mignon fogarty, grammar girl

When you envision someone who’s good at building dynasties, you tend to think of someone who’s ferocious, unyielding, or at the very least, a little bit “Nero” around the edges. Mignon Fogarty is probably the opposite of all these things—she is cheery, friendly, helpful, and all-around delightful, yet in just a few short years she’s managed to create a podcasting empire and become a (nerd) household name. A former science writer, Mignon brings all of the precision and love of discovery of her previous beat to language, and her full passion to everything. She’s a delight to read or listen to, wherever you may find her!

When did you decide to become a writer?

When I was very young, one of the things my mother did to keep me entertained during the summer was take me to the library for one-day classes. I loved the writing classes most of all, and I think that was the beginning of a life-long interest in writing. I took detours and did other things, but I always came back to writing.

Who was your favorite teacher?

I took one quarter of physics at a community college when I was trying to figure out what to do with my life, and although I’m embarrassed to say I don’t remember the instructor’s name, he was the best teacher I’ve ever had. He had a way of explaining difficult concepts that made them fun to think about and easy to understand. For example, he brought in big and small toy cars to show how force is the result of mass times acceleration. I remember those forumlas to this day even though I never use them.

What do you love to write about?

I love to write about word origins. They fascinate me, and they often help you remember what a difficult word means or can give you ideas for using the word in clever ways. “Nepotism,” for example, comes from the Latin word for “nephew” because popes used to give coveted positions to their nephews.

What has writing taught you?

Writing professionally has taught me that everyone makes mistakes and it’s impossible to be perfect. It’s easy to carp at other people’s typos or errors, but when you’re putting out a couple thousand words each week and a couple of books a year, you’ll inevitably make mistakes. The best thing to do is to address them as gracefully as possible and move on, and that seems like a lesson that can apply to many things in life.

How has writing made you stronger?

Being a writer allowed me to work for myself, and that has made me much stronger. I am responsible for my income, I am responsible for my insurance, I am responsible for the direction my career takes, and I am responsible for my schedule. By taking ownership of all the things an employer usually does, I take on extra risk, but facing that risk has made me stronger. If you want a more direct way the act of writing has made me stronger, writing books has shown me that I can finish big projects, and that makes me feel stronger and more confident than I did before. It makes me want to take on new, big challenges.

If you could go back in time and tell 10-year-old you anything, what would it be?

Take that job you’ll be offerred at a small start-up called eBay.

More philosophically, I’d tell my 10-year-old self that it’s OK to ask for help and favors. The people who seem to have the easiest time in life and business are the ones who know a lot of people, help a lot of people, and ask for help in return. I spent a lot of time when I was younger trying to figure things out myself. It would have been easier just to ask smart people a lot of questions. People are usually delighted to help someone who looks up to them.

What are your five favorite books, blogs or things to read?

Garner’s Modern American Usage

I have about 75 books on writing, but this is the one I turn to most often for difficult questions. Every writer should own a copy. If they did, I’d probably be out of business, but the world would be a more literate place.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage

This book has more discussion of the history of English usage problems than Garner’s. The entries are longer and more roundabout, which means it’s not my first choice when I’m just looking for an answer, but it’s always a fascinating read when you want to know how a particular word usage problem arose, how long it has existed, and what different commentators have said about it over the years.

Wired

I’ve been a subscriber for at least 10 years and I look forward to every issue. I always tear out a bunch of pages that give me ideas for future podcasts, purchases, or business moves.

Slate Daily Podcast

Since I’m a podcaster, I figure I’m allowed to include podcasts in this list. I listen to the Slate Daily Podcast religiously because I often don’t have time to keep up on everything that’s happening in the world. I can listen to this podcast as I’m going to sleep at night, and the Gabfest hosts discuss the three biggest or most interesting stories of the week. It helps me stay at least a little bit culturally literate.

SlushPile Hell

For comic relief, I read the SlushPile Hell blog, on which an anonymous literary agent posts snippets from supposedly real query letters. They’re hilarious, and they also remind me that people still need refreshers for the rules that seem obvious to me. Don’t be rude. Don’t be presumptuous. Check your spelling.

Mignon Fogarty is known for her Grammar Girl podcast and has written six books on language, including the new book 101 Misused Words You’ll Never Confuse Again. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

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