Interview: books to podcasts, “Grammar Girl” Mignon Fogarty sets the English language straight

She’s popularly known as Grammar Girl and she’s appeared on television shows ranging from Oprah to CNN in the name of setting the record straight on proper grammar and usage. Mignon Fogarty has managed to simultaneously get her message across through new media avenues such as podcasting and through traditional print books. She talks with Stabley Times about the career path which ultimately led her toward giving grammar tips for a living, how her television appearances have impacted her professional efforts, and whether or not you have to be afraid of incurring her wrath if you speak to her using less than perfect grammar.

“When I was a science writer,” she says, “I also did a lot of editing work for scientists, and I saw my clients making the same mistakes over and over again – little things, such as using ‘which’ when they should use ‘that’ or misusing a semicolon. I was already doing a long science podcast as a hobby, and I decided to also do a quick, simpler writing podcast because I saw that there were so many people who needed writing tips.”

That motivated her to launch a podcast in 2006, in the early days of the medium. “Much to my surprise, the Grammar Girl podcast took off right away and essentially took over my life. I worked like crazy for about six months trying to do both Grammar Girl and the science writing and editing, since that work paid my bills, and when I finally got my book deal, I was able to switch to Grammar Girl full time.”

That success caused her podcasting efforts to multiply. “I firmly believe in the power of a network and cross-promotion,” she says of her Quick and Dirty Tips podcasting network. “When Grammar Girl became such a huge hit, I realized I was on to something with the short, in-and-out format. I had tried to join some of the existing podcasting networks at the time, and it didn’t work out, so I decided the only way it was going to work is if I made my own network. (When I was a kid, my favorite book was “If I Ran the Zoo” by Dr. Seuss.) Adam Lowe, who had been my co-host for the science podcast started doing a manners podcast for the network, and I signed on a few other friends to do shows. When it got to five or six shows it was becoming too big for me to handle alone, and my publisher, Macmillan, was interested in partnering, so we did. At first it was a more limited partnership, but it’s grown over time and now we have 16 shows and they handle all the day-to-day operations. A few years ago, I had to decide whether I wanted to be a business executive or Grammar Girl, and it made more sense for me to be Grammar Girl.”

Before long, traditional media outlets from Oprah to CNN began using her as a grammar expert. “I saw big spikes in Web traffic from both of those media hits,” she says. “When I was profiled on CNN, I didn’t have any books out, but when I was on Oprah, I had a one-hour audiobook out. It did have a nice sales spike, but it wasn’t the kind of spectacular thing you might imagine because they didn’t mention the book at all. I was a guest on NPR’s ‘Talk of the Nation’ when 101 Misused Words came out, and I think that created the biggest sales spike I’ve seen for books. 

“Some of the Oprah traffic was interesting though. It caused a much bigger increase in Web traffic than in podcast traffic, but it was definitely a spike, not an immediate boost up to a new, higher level of daily traffic. The show airs in other countries later, so every once in a while we’d see an unexpected traffic spike, and then I’d get a bunch of e-mail messages from people in Indonesia or Australia or some other country and we’d know that it had aired there.  I was very lucky that the show aired in the US as a rerun the week after my first print book came out. Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing had made the New York Times extended best-seller list on its own (that’s the list that only shows up on their website), but the next week, after the Oprah rerun aired, the book moved a few notches up to the printed best-seller list.”

Mignon says that her trademark name Grammar Girl was something that “just popped into my head and I knew it was perfect right away. I can’t say a lot of thought went into it at the time, but in retrospect, I believe it works because of the alliteration and because ‘girl’ is a nonthreatening word. People have a lot of anxiety about writing, and a lot of the grammar advice out there is delivered in a snarky or superior way. Being Grammar Girl sends the message that I’m friendly and approachable.”

But those who might be afraid to open their mouth around Grammar Girl for fear of having their grammar corrected need not worry. “I never correct people’s grammar unless they ask me to,” she explains. “I think it’s rude. However, I know a lot of people want to correct other people, so my advice is if you can’t stop yourself from doing it, at least be kind and polite. And for heaven’s sake be sure you’re right before you correct someone! You wouldn’t believe the number of people who try to correct me, and all they’d have to do is look in a dictionary or style guide to see that they are wrong. In fact, the reason I was on the Oprah Winfrey Show is that someone rudely corrected Oprah, when Oprah wasn’t wrong. They had me on the show to tell that poor woman she was wrong on international TV.

Her participation in multiple forms of media is about to expand again, this time into the world of the App Store. “I’m working on an iPad word-matching game called Grammar Pop,” she reveals. “I’m hoping it will be on sale by April or May, and I’m dying for it to be released! I adore it. We did a big round of beta testing and people in general really liked it, and grade school and middle school teachers seemed to love it. It’s a fun word game on its own, but it can also be a great tool to help kids to learn the parts of speech. I’m not committed to any one platform like podcasting or the Web or social media. Not to say that I’m going to stop those things, but I’m always looking for new ways to make learning fun. If Grammar Pop does well, I’m sure I’ll make more games, and this one will be out quickly for more devices. Learn more about Grammar Girl. photo credit: Dana Nollsch