New book from Daily Herald’s Grammar Moses commands readers to watch their words

Jim Baumann

Every Sunday Jim Baumann, the mild-mannered managing editor of the Daily Herald, slips into his waggish alter ego as Grammar Moses to remind readers why they need to speak, write and think carefully.

Now he’s ready to throw the book at them.

Eckhartz Press, the Chicago-based publishing house led by Rick Kaempfer and David Stern, just announced the release of Grammar Moses: A humorous look at grammar and usage. The 169-page paperback is available for pre-order now. (Here is the link.)

Grammar Moses

Along with a compilation of Baumann’s favorite columns over the last six years is a trove of internal memos to the Daily Herald staff that gave rise to his popular weekly feature in print and online.

Baumann, a second-generation suburban journalist, grew up in Arlington Heights and attended Prospect High School. After graduating from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign he joined the Daily Herald as an intern in 1983. He’s been managing editor since 2012.

On the eve of his first book’s publication, Baumann shared a few well-worded thoughts on the importance of clear communication, his play-on-words homage to American folk artist Grandma Moses, and why it bugs him when people mix up “their,” “there” and “they’re”:

Q. How did an occasional memo to the staff morph into a weekly column in the Daily Herald?

A. I was talking to Eileen Brown, our head of marketing and promotion at the time, and she came up with the idea. I wasn’t sure anyone outside our walls would be interested, let alone that such a column could be sustainable. So you have her to blame for what it’s become.

Q. Where do your ideas come from?

A. A journalist is always observant, always listening. When I hear or see something that is either funny or irritating, I know I have something to work with. And, yes, I realize I just ended that last sentence with a preposition. So sue me. When you’re passionate about something – and when you are under pressure to produce – it just comes to you.

Q. English teachers must love you. Do ever hear from any of them?

A. Often. I think former English teachers are my sweet spot. Why? Because they spent their careers trying to teach kids good communication skills and they see a lot of that work undone today. I also try to counsel them that language evolves so their work is not for naught. Wait, can I say “not for naught”?

Q. Why should the average person care about proper grammar?

A. When you write to someone or talk to someone, you want them to understand you. Right? That’s why we invented languages. That’s why we invented frameworks for employing those languages. You can torture them only so much before they don’t work for you anymore. For me, it starts with clear communication.

Q. Have you always been a grammar nerd?

A. That’s a hard no. I was a math and science nerd. My worst test scores were in English. I was a deer in headlights in speech class. I couldn’t parse a sentence to save my life. So, naturally, I pursued a career in journalism and ended up writing about grammar.

Q. When it comes to grammar and usage, what’s your personal pet peeve?
 
A. A couple things really get under my skin. To have any facility with grammar you need to be a critical thinker. Does “Me and her went shopping” make any sense? Take out the “her.” I think the least skilled of us knows “Me went to the store” sounds like something an unfrozen caveman might say. What’s more bothersome to me is how people who understand grammar and mathematics twist their messages to make you think you’re buying something better than it really is.

Q. What made you come up with the name “Grammar Moses”?

A. I love art. I could spend days in the Louvre, the D’Orsay, the Rijksmuseum, the Art Institute of Chicago. Just ask my long-suffering wife. So Grandma Moses is on my radar. What an inspiring painter. It seemed natural that I’d steal her shtick.

Q. Have social media and texting contributed to the decline of good grammar?

A. We all have back space buttons on our computers and phones, so why don’t we use them? I understand that social media is casual and that texting is even more so. But I’d think choosing from their/there/they’re wouldn’t be too difficult. The whole world can see on Facebook that you can’t put together a sentence. I just don’t think too many people worry about that.

Q. How did you choose the columns for the book?
 
A. I can count on two hands the number of columns I’ve skipped over six years. Clearly, I don’t have a 1.000 batting average. There have been some clunkers along the way. So I spared you having to read them again. I chose the funniest ones and the ones that addressed the biggest problem areas. I also chose the ones that had the best contributions from my pen pals.

The column is really a conversation with readers, and without that interplay there would be no column and certainly no book. I write a lot about music, and I’ve pointed out that the best greatest hits albums always have a new song or two. That’s the reward for the constant fans who’ve bought all the other albums. So I lead off the book with a smattering of the internal staff memos that were the precursor to the column.

Q. Will reading your book make people smarter?

A. I can’t guarantee it, but I sure hope so. I’m confident it’ll make you smile. What I can guarantee is it won’t make you any less smart.

Q. Are you as funny in person as you are in the book?
 
A. I’m a laugh riot, Rob.

(This blog operates under an agreement with the Daily Herald.)

Tuesday’s comment of the day: Kar Uchima: Viola Spolin’s “theatre games” influenced everyone who attended Columbia College and DePaul for theatre. Second City, Organic Theatre, Steppenwolf all had actors who are still working all over film, TV and stage who had the benefit of this amazing training. She left her incredible mark.