Book Review: Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, by Patricia T. O’Connor
By Jen Johnson, Dissertation Editor
A confession: I like grammar rules. Not because I think they are easy to learn or even always logical (where’s the fun in that, after all?), but because in a world that is frequently confusing and sometimes chaotic, grammar rules offer a comforting source of consistency. Nouns always (or should always) agree with verbs. Pronouns such as everyone and everybody are always singular. The word it’s is always a contraction for it is, never a possessive (that would be its). As both a writer and a reader, I find that kind of linguistic constancy reassuring, lovely, even elegant.
But in spite of my affection for grammar rules, I have to admit that few authors on the subject manage to bring those rules to life in a lively, let alone memorable, way. Patricia O’Connor is one sparkling exception. In her book Woe Is I (first published in 1996 and expanded in 2003), O’Connor infuses chapters on such potentially dry subjects as pronouns and punctuation with humor and charm. In an especially entertaining chapter on clichés, for example, she encourages writers to be discerning about which well-worn phrases they allow to creep into their work; among her list of overused clichés is “agree to disagree,” which she dismisses by saying, “People never really agree to disagree. They just get tired of arguing” (p. 169). And to illustrate the concept of a dangler, O’Connor uses this chuckle-worthy example: “Born at the age of forty-three, the baby was a great comfort to Mrs. Wooster” (p. 160). O’Connor’s use of humor as a literary device, while great fun, also serves a more serious purpose; by first tickling the reader’s brain with these little feathers of wit, she succeeds in making the reader more receptive to the (blessedly clear and concise) grammar lesson that follows. After the Mrs. Wooster dangler, for example, O’Connor explains,
As the sentence is arranged, the baby—not his mother—was forty-three. (The opening phrase, born at the age of forty-three, is attached to the baby, so that’s what it describes.) Here’s one way to rearrange things: The baby, born when Mrs. Wooster was forty-three, was a great comfort to her. (p. 160)
And that, I would say, is about as painless a grammar lesson as one could ever hope for.
Adding to the appeal of Woe Is I is O’Connor’s voice. Her tone is accessible, even conversational, making me feel at times as if we were chatting about the nuances of grammar over a morning cup of coffee and a warm cinnamon roll. About the verb to wake, for example, she writes, “There are lots of ways to greet the morning—maybe more than we need. You can wake, or you can waken, or you can awake, or you can awaken. So rise and shine, already!” (p. 67). And O’Connor’s candor about her own grammatical hang-ups, such as not always using the verbs may and might correctly (p. 59), is refreshing, especially considering that she was once an editor at The New York Times Book Review. (See, even experts can make mistakes.)
Woe Is I is more than a guide to grammar, though. O’Connor winds down the book with chapters on grammar rules that have gone extinct, such as, “It’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition” (p. 183); how to write more effectively (applicable whether you’re writing a dissertation or a letter to a friend); and e-mail etiquette (including the use of abbreviations, such as LOL, and emoticons), each of which could prove useful to readers wanting to sharpen their command of English grammar in all its many applications.
One caveat for Walden readers: O’Connor and the editors of the APA manual are not always in perfect agreement, and where they differ, the APA manual wins (at least when it comes to writing academic work at Walden). For example, O’Connor instructs the reader to add ‘s “to form the plurals of all numbers” (p. 30), but this rule contradicts APA 4.37, which directs writers not to use an apostrophe in plurals of numbers (e.g., 1950s, not 1950’s). And while O’Connor lists among her dead rules, “Data is a plural noun and always takes a plural verb” (p. 184), any student who submits work to the Writing Center knows (or quickly learns) that this rule is in fact alive and well in APA land. Such distinctions aside, Woe Is I is a smart, witty, and, for the rule-weary, palatable guide to the sometimes quirky world of English grammar. And for the grammar lover, well, this book is pure delight.
O’Connor, P. T. (2003). Woe is I: The grammarphobe’s guide to better English in plain English. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.