Interview with Paul Brians

Author, Emeritus English Professor, and Website Creator

Paul Brians wrote the book on errors in English usage - literally.

His book, Common Errors in English Usage 2nd Edition, serves as an easy-to-use reference for all of those times you can't remember if you should use lay or lie, than or then, or your or you're.

The book also covers commonly misspelled words (e.g. grammer) and confused expressions (e.g. It's a doggy dog world.)

His book began as a website, which very quickly grew in popularity. You can still use it to check your mistakes. The excellent index page makes it just as easy to use as his book!

Aside from being a successful author and website owner, Paul Brians is an emeritus professor at Washington State University, where he taught English for 39 years.

1. Why do you think grammar is important?

What I write about is English usage. Grammar is the study of the structure of language, and some usage problems can be helped with an understanding of grammar (why a subject and verb must agree in number, for instance). But a great many of the problems I discuss have to do with spelling, pronunciation, punctuation, and just plain mixing up one word or expression with another. These are not grammar problems. They are usage problems.

Understanding standard usage is important because many people will think less of you or even laugh at you if they think you use poor English. It's a matter of fitting in, not appearing uneducated. But also in many cases poor English usage can make you hard to understand. Your meaning may not be clear if you mix up "immigrate" with "emigrate," for instance. And you may unintentionally insult someone by referring to "Orientals" instead of "Asians.

People are free to use and misuse language however they like, but it's important to know which patterns are commonly regarded as erroneous or inappropriate so that they can choose how they speak and write to have the intended effect on their audience.

2. Common Errors in English Usage started on the Internet. What provoked you to start a website dedicated to fixing common English errors?

I was one of the first teachers to put educational materials such as my literary study guides up on the Web.

Their success led me to think about what other sorts of things might be suitable for Web publication. I had of course read a lot of mangled prose by students in my long career as an English professor, but the immediate impulse came from the awful writing on restaurant menus: "Ceasar salad," "French dip with au jus," "soup du jour of the day," etc. I wrote up a short version of the site fairly rapidly in 1997 and almost immediately began to get feedback from readers suggesting other entries. A great deal of the material now on the site was originally suggested by my readers.

The site got a strongly positive review from the short-lived magazine Yahoo Internet Life, and that led to an explosion of traffic. When linked to it as well, it really took off. The site has had well over eleven million visits since it began in 1997.

I enjoy maintaining the site because people come to it voluntarily and take from it what they want. Unlike grading papers, I'm not forcing my standards on anyone. I'm just trying to offer help to people struggling with the language. In the process I try to keep my own writing readable, memorable, and--whenever possible--entertaining. The thousands of e-mails I get tell me that a lot of people like what I do and find it useful. For most of its history the site has been number one or two if you search for the word "English" in Google.

3. Mignon Fogarty wrote the foreword of the second edition of your book. How did that come about?

My publisher's son stumbled on the "Grammar Girl" podcasts and told his father about her. When he contacted her it turned out she was a big fan of mine, and she agreed to write an introduction to the book. She also lists my book as one of her favorite references in her own book. We met for the first time last fall here on Bainbridge Island and had a long and pleasant conversation about our philosophies of English usage, which agree quite closely. The encounter was taped, and some day I hope we can have at least a portion of it available on YouTube.

4. Where do you find the errors that you address?

I mentioned above that people send me suggestions all the time. I am recently retired, so I don't read student papers any more; but I see them in other reading materials. A surprising number come from listening to nervous people struggling to be articulate while being interviewed on National Public Radio. And there are always menus. The latest example in the latter category is "humus" for "hummus" (correct for Turks, but alarming to everybody else who thinks of humus as dirt). And I have systematically gone through several usage guides for inspiration. I never copy an entry verbatim and am careful to make up my own examples, but I owe a lot of inspiration to other usage writers. I just try to be simpler, more straightforward, and more memorable in the way I deal with the items their work provides me.

5. In many of your entries you include interesting historical tidbits. What are your favorite resources for finding all of that information?

My Ph.D. is in comparative literature, and I taught both the history of ideas courses and world civilizations for many years. I know a lot about history, and have a long-standing interest in the evolution of language. I specialized for a while in Medieval languages (my dissertation dealt with texts in Old French, Middle English, and Middle High German and my first book was a set of translations called Bawdy Tales from the Courts of Medieval France). But when I don't know the history of a word or expression or need to check what I think I know I turn to the Oxford English Dictionary, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, and the Cassell Dictionary of Slang. My favorite usage guide is the American Heritage Book of English Usage.

6. Which errors are your pet peeves?

"The reason is because" bugs me because of its redundancy although many experts now accept it as standard. The apostrophe in family names is another irritant ("The Brown's"). And I'm one of a shrinking minority that thinks "begs the question" should not be used when "raises the question" is meant. But none of these is a serious error, and I don't think that people who make these errors are stupid. They just bother me--that's why they're pet peeves. That doesn't mean other people should especially worry about them.

7. Is there anything I haven't asked you that you think is important or worth talking about?

One of the most amazing things to me is that although all the material in my book (except for the cartoons) is available free on the Web, people still like to buy the book. Of course some are bought as gifts, but many people seem to enjoy sitting down with the volume. I often refer to it myself when I want to check something. I find it a bit more handy than the website for some purposes. The fact that the entries are organized in a single alphabetical list makes it particularly easy to find what you are looking for. We sold over 40,000 copies of the first edition before bringing out the second last fall.

I am also deeply grateful to my publisher, William, James & Co., for its support and encouragement. Not many publishers would take the risk of publishing a book whose content is already being given away on the Web. The support of the Bas Bleu and Signals catalogs and Barnes and Noble has also been crucial in selling books and calendars.

9. Random Question: Which of your many achievements makes you most proud?

I'm proud of my 40-year teaching career; but in relation to my research publications, I'm especially proud of my Greenwood Press volume Modern South Asian Literature in English. I wish it were more widely known, because it's aimed at helping nonspecialist readers enjoy works by such authors as Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, and Jhumpa Lahiri.

I'm also especially tickled by the blurb NPR's Scott Simon provided for my book: "I’d call Paul Brians’ book incredible, fabulous, or fantastic, except thanks to him, I know now that none of those words are what I really mean. Let’s just say that Common Errors in English Usage is the most cheerfully useful book I've read since Comma Sutra."

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