Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Book Review: Woe Is I by Patricia T. O'Conner

Woe is I by Patricia T. O'ConnerThere is no better way to improve your grammar knowledge than to teach English. But regardless of how many years you teach, the fresh eyes of a student will always frame a question in a way that makes you recognize yet another exception to a grammar rule.

During my years as a teacher, I pored through countless books and searched hundreds of websites for concise explanations to various questions and conundrums. And I enjoyed every minute of it, if only for the fact that it increased my knowledge and hopefully made me a better teacher. But the presentation of the information in those books and on the websites was often dreary and pedantic.

Why can't a subject like English grammar be presented in a light-hearted and entertaining way? In such a way that makes it enjoyable to read and more memorable than dry-as-sawdust academic sounding crap?

In fact, it can. Woe is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T. O'Conner, proves that clever, concise writing, and logical and clear explanations result in a book that is enjoyable to read and effective as a grammar guide. Her approach to the subject also ensures that you are far more likely to reference this grammar book than any other on your shelf.

Woe is I is more effective than a Longman grammar book which contains reams of practice sheets. And all because of the writing style and use of succinct memory aids. Woe is I is not a comprehensive book that covers every possible grammar point and language function. Instead, it focuses on all the common problem areas that give even native speakers problems. Within that context, it does a thorough and convincing job.

Together with her engaging style, O'Conner offers up plausible reasons not just for grammar rules but for the reasons behind why certain aspects cause so many problems. For example, when musing on the confusion between the use of I and me, she writes: "We begin to feel subconsciously that I is somehow more genteel than me, even in cases where me is the right choice—for instance, after a preposition." On top of all that, she includes plenty of exceptions to the rules; something that is a must for a good grammar guide.

Writing Style


Light-hearted and humorous is the writing style here. The author makes a point of demonstrating the topic she is focusing on in the comments she makes in each section. For example, when explaining why it's completely acceptable to use prepositions at the end of sentences, she closes out by stating, "At any rate, this is a rule that modern grammarians have long tried to get out from under." But there is no possibility she can be accused of being too clever by half, however, as she often (unfortunately) telegraphs such plays on words for fear some people may not get it.

The book's intended audience is clearly Americans. O'Conner frequently mentions the British alternative regarding usage or spelling and then bats it aside with no further discussion. A few times she states that the American usage simply sounds better to her ears. Quite a shocker that—considering the fact that she is American. Any annoyance felt by Brits will be offset by the fact that she often provides the basic kind of information that should be known by the average 10 year-old.

For example, she clarifies the pronunciation of "nuclear" (think: George W.), and notes in parentheses that , "The vowels are a, e, i, o, u." Though at times you may feel the book has been dumbed down, these asides are simply reflective of the fact that many intelligent people in society are unaware of the language of grammar.

So, despite those examples, this book will appeal to readers who already consider themselves grammar experts as well as those who need far more work.

Great Content


The chapter on dangling modifiers was one of my favourites. It provides a simple and effective way to recognize and excise a problem that plagues many people's writing. The section on misused and misunderstood words is similarly interesting. I'd be willing to bet that most readers have a skewed understanding of at least one of the following words:
  • enervating
  • eclectic
  • fulsome
  • fortuitous
  • restive
She saves some of her best for last though. In the chapter entitled "The Living Dead" she deals with some disputed grammar topics. For years I have railed against the absurdity that says you should "never split an infinitive." I was happy to see that O'Conner agrees:

An infinitive is a verb in its simplest form, right out of the box. It can usually be recognized by the word to in front of it: Blackbeard helped him to escape. But the to isn't actually part of the infinitive and isn't always necessary: Blackbeard helped him escape. As a preposition, a word that positions other words, the to lets us know an infinitive is coming.

The truth is that the phrase "split infinitive" is misleading. Since to isn't really part of the infinitive, there's nothing to split.

She goes on to eviscerate worn out canards like the one that says you can't end sentences with prepositions. Does she have the final say on all these topics? Of course not. But if you agree with her on any of them, you'll have plenty of fresh ammunition next time you battle a grammar fiend as dreary and pedantic as yourself.

Of course, not everything hits the mark. Not surprisingly, my eyes glazed over while reading the nine pages dedicated to over-used clich├ęs. Referencing usage by Shakespeare is a tactic used by many when arguing a point of grammar. O'Conner perfectly mocks this tradition early on in the book but then does it herself later on. These are minor quibbles, however.

This is a great little book and one that I'm sure I will reference many times in the future. Woe is I is entertaining, a great source of information, and proof beyond a doubt that grammar doesn't have to be dull.

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