A book about an English language correspondence course? Interesting? Well, yes — if you're a sucker for those quizzes that go around the Internet (What country consumes more turkey per capita, Israel or Mexico?) or if you've ever felt uncomfortable about whether to say who or whom.
But Ed Battistella's book "Do You Make These Mistakes In English?" is also about the birth of the advertising business, trends in education and the American impulse toward self-improvement that spurred sales of more than 150,000 copies of Sherwin Cody's correspondence course and made him a six-figure annual income.
MJ: You came across an ad for Cody's correspondence course — along with ads for sea monkeys and joy buzzers — in a comic book and sent away for it. Was this an early sign that the study of English would become a career?
EB: I suppose it was. I've always liked sentence diagramming but I really didn't get hooked until I studied dialects as a college student. Then I had a chance to learn about the tremendous variety of language and how pronunciation and grammar shape perceptions.
MJ: Cartoon ads for Cody's course depicted people suffering embarrassment, social snubbing and job loss due to their poor English, appealing to a potential buyer's insecurities. How does this compare to selling contemporary language courses such as Rosetta Stone?
EB: The Rosetta Stone ad has the American farm boy studying Italian to impress the Italian model, right? There are a lot of similarities — ads 90 years ago sold products with a mix of desire, anxiety and efficiency and we still see that today. Many of the old ads were quite hard-edged, though.
MJ: Cody's English correspondence course offered economical and practical lessons to people who wanted to acquire "the skills, manners and mental habits of the successful" without attending formal classes. Is Cody's brand of good English still a requirement for success?
EB: The English language has changed, of course. It's always evolving. But Cody's advice about gaining strong communication skills is still sound, and in fact these are the skills that employers tell us they value most. A few people are exempt from speaking and writing well, but for the rest of us those are the most important skills we can acquire.
MJ: Cody used what we now call "student centered" methods, including the diagnostic test, a classroom mainstay when I was in school. Is he credited with originating such educational techniques?
EB: Not really. Cody is pretty well-known in the history of business communication and advertising but largely ignored in English and linguistics. He was part of a group of progressive Midwestern educational reformers that included William Wirt — the man who invented the modern high school. And Cody himself published some interesting reformist articles in the English Journal, but he was more of an entrepreneur than a traditional academic, so his contributions were often overlooked.
MJ: Judging from bookstore shelves bulging with self-help books, it would seem the impulse toward self-improvement is as strong now as it was in Cody's day. How do today's self-help strategies and objectives compare to Cody's?
EB: One thing that became apparent to me as I read through home-study books was that the self-improvement ethic shifted over time. Early books, like Cody's and Charles Eliot's "Harvard Classics," focused on discipline and self-study. Later works, like Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People," emphasized understanding and managing other people's perceptions. So I think the self-improvement genre has evolved from learning about yourself to learning about other people.
MJ: Both Cody and Dale Carnegie were failed novelists before succeeding in the self-help genre. Is there a message here for aspiring writers?
EB: I suppose the message is to go with your strengths. Both Cody and Carnegie found that their talents were more suited to business communication than to fiction. But it's worth noting that they got interested in nonfiction writing through exposure to literature and fiction. I guess you could consider an interest in fiction as a gateway to other kinds of writing and communication. Reading really is fundamental.
Edwin Battistella, 53, joined Southern Oregon University in July of 2000. A New Jersey native, he has degrees from Rutgers College and the City University of New York and previously held faculty positions in Alabama and Nebraska. His book "Bad Language: Are Some Words Better Than Others?" was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award in 2006.