Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins: A Review

Reviewing Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins

I have a weakness for books with funny titles — especially if they are about writing, grammar, style, and usage. Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer’s Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears and Outmoded Rules of English Usage by Theodore M. Bernstein has finally made its way from my Amazon wish list to my desktop, and I’ve been enjoying it immensely.

Bernstein, a former editorial director of the New York Times Book Division, a 25-year journalism professor at Columbia’s School of Journalism, and consultant on usage for the Random House and American Heritage dictionaries, tackles some of the unfortunate strictures that have made writing more difficult than it needs to be. With delightful good humor, he routs “Syntax Scarecrows” and other distractions, while answering grammar, usage, and style questions you didn’t know you should be asking.

The stated purpose of the book is to “lay to rest the superstitions that have been passed on from one generation to the next by teachers, by editors and by writers — prohibitions deriving from mere personal prejudice or from misguided pedantry or from a cold conservatism that would freeze the language if it could.”

Teaching writing is challenging enough without passing on misinformation, such as the absurd rules about not ending a sentence with a preposition, or never splitting infinitives. Better to pass on a rule about never saying never! Bernstein introduces potentially sticky terms, provides examples of correct and incorrect usage, all thoroughly explained in neatly categorized and alphabetized format. Before you make a big red circle on your student’s essay, it might be a good idea to check with Bernstein to be sure that the usage you’re marking is actually wrong!

This isn’t the first resource I’d recommend to parents who are evaluating student writing (and I don’t know that I agree with everything in the book), but it’s a useful addition to your editing shelf. If you find yourself marking heavily on your student’s writing, I recommend at least reading Miss Thistlebottom to be sure that you’re on the right track. Writing evaluation is an academic activity that has enormous potential to strengthen or weaken a parent/student relationship, so it’s important to get it as right as you can, and reading Miss Thistlebottom should help.


I use a writer’s handbook and a rubric when I evaluate writing. This provides a strong framework for evaluation and discussion of writing, and can help you become a better writing teacher and evaluator. You can learn more about this from “How to use a writer’s handbook for constructive evaluation” at Excellence-in-Literature.com.

Carnival of Homeschooling

The 109th Carnival of Homeschooling was posted today on the Life on the Road blog. The theme is “Leaving a Legacy,” and there are many, many interesting posts. You’ll even find my post from last week (Our Children Need to Write More) included. It’s a wonderful way to meet interesting bloggers you haven’t encountered before, so be sure to check it out.


Today is the registration deadline for the March SAT! You can register for it online at College Board.

2 Responses

  1. January 30, 2008

    […] fantastically helpful Janice Campbell has reviewed Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer’s Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears, […]

  2. September 20, 2009

    Re: PLEASE, people!…

    Whatever! Spelling–or, rather, correct orthography–has never been a high ca……

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