PULLMAN, Wash. — More than one-and-a-half million people have visited the “Common Errors in English” Web site created by Washington State University faculty member Paul Brians, prompting him to translate the site into a book, “Common Errors in English Usage.”
When it comes to grammar, Brians leads with a sense of humor, and he is the first to suggest that when it comes to grammar, context makes a difference. “My approach is somewhere between prescriptive and descriptive,” Brians said. “If you are on a subway train in New York and feel threatened by someone who is glaring at you, I am not suggesting you say, ‘At whom are you looking?’ You would probably want to go with, ‘who are you looking at?’” He contends, however, that knowing the standard form and being able to choose is what his book, Web site and passion are all about.
Because Brians is an English professor, one might assume his passion for grammar is an extension of his academic endeavors. That is not the case. “My passion actually grew out of restaurant menus,” he said. “I couldn’t help but notice misplaced apostrophes and bizarre wording such as ‘with au jus dip.’”
For Brians, grammar skills are not hard and fast rules set in concrete but rather practical tools that come in handy when it matters. He uses job interviews as a prime example. “You wouldn’t show up for a job interview in a torn T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, and you certainly wouldn’t use language not of the social class of those you would associate with on that job. It is a survival skill,” he said, “and not one that is taught in schools much any more. Many students arrive at universities without ever having had numerous errors in writing commented on. I try to give people the tools they need to protect themselves in situations where nonstandard usage can hurt them.”
“Common Errors in English Usage,” published by William James and Company, is Brian’s fourth book. A book signing is scheduled for April 26 from 11-2 p.m. at Book People in Moscow, Idaho.
Brians, a professor at WSU since 1968, has another book, an introduction to English language fiction by South Asian writers, due for release this fall.