52 Ancestors: Some Frightening Style Guides

Posted by: Eileen A. Souza

Yes, I said “Style Guides.” For the theme, Frightening, I want to introduce you to several style guides that I use, in addition to the Chicago Manual of Style and Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. They are all written by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. My favorite is titled The Transitive Vampire: A Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed. I am resorting to this topic for this week’s theme due to the lack of relevant material related to my family and it’s Halloween.

What do style guides have to do with genealogy? Well, as genealogists, we do a lot of writing. Karen Elizabeth Gordon is no ordinary grammarian, and her works are no commonplace style books. They include:

  • The Transitive Vampire: A Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed,
  • The Well-Tempered Sentence: A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed,
  • The Disheveled Dictionary: A Curious Caper Through Our Sumptuous Lexicon (all of which I own) and
  • Torn Wings and Faux Pas: A Flashbook of Style, a Beastly Guide Through the Writer’s Labyrinth (which I do not yet own).

The Transitive Vampire is inhabited by a motley cast of gargoyles, werewolves, nymphs, fauns, debutantes, mastodons, and, yes, vampires, who frolic and assemble to illustrate basic principles of grammar. The sentences are fascinating, for example, “The Styrian String Quartet is a four-headed monster of catgut and mediocrity that shouldn’t be let out of its cage.” but the rules and their explanations are as thorough as any you might find in Strunk and White.

The Transitive Vampire breathes new life into our old grammatical demons. In the words of Gordon’s introduction,

“Before I leave you in the embrace of the transitive vampire, I should introduce him to you…
…He had become one of night’s creatures, with a grammar he had received from the great and jagged unknown.”

Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s Torn Wings and Faux Pas: A Flashbook of Style, a Beastly Guide Through the Writer’s Labyrinth, a quick-fix handbook, is an ideal complement to The Deluxe Transitive Vampire. In this book, she defeats such confusing grammatical beasts like elliptical clauses, split infinitives, and many more.

My favorite quote from The New Well-Tempered Sentence is “for everyone who thinks a semicolon is a small intestine, or a dash is something you make for a taxi…” This little gothic volume saves punctuation from boredom, with original explanations of the rules of punctuation, whimsical and scary graphics, and unforgettable characters.

The Disheveled Dictionary defines words such as amaranthine, chthonic, divagation (featuring the Blond Assassin), internuncio (exemplified by the Grim Reaper), malefic, perfidious (illustrated using mastodons), and tzigane.

Gordon’s language books are not complete references on the English language; there are far more comprehensive guides than these. The real value of Gordon’s books is that they make you want to read through them like fiction novels, with the grammar lessons being absorbed along the way.

Gordon published her original *Transitive Vampire* in 1984. The newer edition, The Deluxe Transitive Vampire, was published in 1993. The latest editions of her grammar books, both new and used, are available at various booksellers. To my knowledge, none are available as eBooks.


The 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge, initiated by Amy Johnson Crow, is a series of weekly prompts to get you to think about an ancestor and share something about them. The guesswork of “who should I write about” is taken care of. This week’s theme is Frightening.

Full Disclosure: I am not an employee or affiliate of any bookseller or publisher.  No one paid me to publish this information.

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5 Responses to 52 Ancestors: Some Frightening Style Guides

  1. Nancy says:

    Thank you for the introduction to these books. They sound interesting and fun.

  2. Fun post! In keeping with the Halloween theme, my response is, I ain’t afraid of no style guides.

  3. Teresa says:

    These sound cool – will have to look for them 🙂

  4. Margaret says:

    Thank you for sharing these fun style guides. Did I just say “fun” and “style guides” in the same sentence?!? Amazing!

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