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Clean, Well-Lighted Sentences: A Guide to Avoiding the Most Common Errors in Grammar and Punctuation

By: Janis Bell
Reviewed by: Treasure Ingels-Thompson
W.W. Norton and Company, 2008
$21.95, Hardcover

Few people nestle themselves into a comfy couch to read a grammar book. And when one tells another that this is the plan for her evening, she may get a sympathetic frown in return. The other person probably thinks, "She should get out more. Tsk. Tsk." Sometimes, a secret for self-improvement is kept in a book, though. Clean, Well-Lighted Sentences by Janis Bell holds such a secret. Delivering clear, insightful explanation of commonly flubbed grammar rules, Bell provides clever rationale and easy-to-follow guidelines for proper grammar each and every time one speaks or writes. The secret is that, following Bell’s guidance, anyone can be a successful grammarian.

Bell’s engaging style and humorous approach coax the reader to persevere through those rules that once lulled many classmates to sleep in English class. Subtly and painlessly, Bell makes grammar as friendly as any of those sleepy pupils. With candid insight, Bell proves her promise that she "know[s] where your grammar and usage errors hang out...where your punctuation gaffes live...what these characters look like and the fragrances they wear."

From the basics of the parts of speech to the heavier concepts such as correct modifier placement to the final touches of proper punctuation, Bell’s kind hand guides her student to precise diction, syntax, and punch. Seven chapters—Case, Agreement, Verb Tense and Usage, Verb Mood, Modifiers, Connectives, and Punctuation—keep the information that Bell shares clearly organized for easy digestion. From start to finish, Bell’s work proves what each of us knows or can learn about grammar.

Furthermore, anticipating the pitfalls of modern American English, Bell includes an easy-to-follow introductory section that explains the purposes of our parts of speech and the different roles sentences play. Supporting Bell’s unfolding of the mystery of grammar are numerous examples and chapter quizzes to help with retention.

At just 141 pages, the book addresses "only the most common errors in American sentences—nothing more." This logical focus makes Clean, Well-Lighted Sentences the most useful grammar book on the market. In fact, I have been so pleased with mine that I am tempted to pass it on to my friend who teaches grammar and composition classes at a local university. Temptation may not prevail. Perhaps she’ll buy her own.

Treasure Ingels-Thompson lives and writes in Montevallo. She is the recent recipient of the Robert Jeremy Lespi Poetry Fellowship.

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