Say It So

Photo: Sarah Shatz

Mignon Fogarty loves language. She thrills to a properly placed apostrophe. She savors the distinction between “who” and “whom.”

And, she has discovered, she is not alone.

Fogarty, MS '98, is the voice and creator of Grammar Girl, a weekly podcast on the finer points of language. Since it launched in July 2006, the online audio program has been downloaded more than 6 million times. Armed with a layman's library of reference books and $600 worth of recording equipment, Fogarty, 40, has spun a pastime into a full-time career.

Like many great ideas, Grammar Girl was hatched at a coffee shop. Fogarty was working as a freelance technical writer. While editing a client's work at a favorite coffee place, she realized that she was correcting the same grammatical errors over and over again. “I literally flipped over the piece I was editing and on the back scribbled three or four show ideas,” she recalls.

Her first show hit the web days later. A free program she recorded in her home in Gilbert, Ariz., Grammar Girl was one of the few podcasts among millions to be featured on the iTunes home page. It hit the iTunes top 100 within a month.

Fans say they're drawn by Fogarty's warm, accessible style. Scolding is very un-Grammar Girl. “Mignon doesn't come across as judgmental . . . but rather as a friend helping you out so you don't embarrass yourself,” says Terry Higgins, a statistician who tunes in from Knoxville, Tenn.

Fogarty, who grew up near Seattle, graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in English. When her husband, Patrick Fogarty, a molecular geneticist, did postdoctoral work at Stanford, she enrolled at Stanford to pursue a graduate degree in biology. She studied to become a science writer.

Grammar Girl was a natural progression from there. “Some people collect Barbies or love cars,” Fogarty said. “I love to read about language and tell people about it.”

She has left technical writing behind to work on a book due in 2008. A downloadable audio book and CD, Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips to Clean Up Your Writing, was published in July. In March, she appeared on Oprah Winfrey's talk show to explain why a woman who had written a letter criticizing a perceived grammatical error on the show was incorrect. (This big break notwithstanding, she blanches at the thought of correcting another person's grammar in conversation. “I actually think it's rude to correct people unless you're their boss or their parents.”)

She still records at home—restarting the tape if the doorbell rings or the air-conditioner kicks on. And after thousands of grammar questions, there are still surprises. “Someone asked me, when you're talking about someone who has died, do you refer to them in the past or present tense?” she said. “I don't think that's a grammar question.”

CORINNE PURTILL, '02, is a reporter at the Arizona Republic.