Thursday, June 7, 2012

Review: Woe Is I

Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English
By Patricia T. O'Conner
Riverhead Books 1996
227 pages
From my bookshelves

Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English

Non-fiction double whammy! I know, I know, you are wondering if you are in the right place. Two non-fiction books in a row? There may be perplexed expressions or scratching of heads. Well…in the interest of full disclosure, I did read Great House before Woe Is I. But Great House is giving me all of these thoughts and feelings and things, and I need some time to muse and ruminate. Woe Is I, on the other hand, is all about the grammar and if you know me, it’s sort of my favorite thing to talk about.

Patricia T. O’Conner is a former editor for the New York Times. She is so good at grammar that she actually taught other smarty pants people who work at the Times about not making fools of themselves on the page. This is a wonderful thing, because if fancy schmancy editors sometimes get confused about when to use ‘that’ and when to use ‘which,’ we can obviously all stop feeling bad about our own grammar mistakes.

Woe Is I is set up into easy to understand chapters, covering tricky topics like pronouns, possessives, punctuation, and so-called language rules. This book is perfect for reading cover to cover as a refresher or keeping handy to answer a specific question. O’Conner has provided both a glossary and an index, so you can find your answer quickly and move on with your literary masterpiece.

The author recognizes several important things. First, making an occasional error in grammar is not the end of the world. She has a lot of fun with this book, which means that you can laugh at your own mistakes and those of others. You may even find yourself chuckling; yes, chuckling about grammar! O’Connor acknowledges that English is a strange and awkward language, with nonsensical rules and lots of exceptions which will break said rules. There is no shame in being confused about this weird, beautiful language that we speak and read. In the introduction, English is compared with ‘rational languages,’ which are constructed to be easy and logical. “And guess what? They’re flat as a pancake. What’s missing is the quirkiness, as well as the ambiguity, the bumpy irregularities that make natural languages so exasperating and shifty – and so wonderful. That’s wonderful in the literal sense: full of wonders and surprises, poetry and unexpected charm. If English weren’t so sketchy and unpredictable, we wouldn’t have Lewis Carroll, Dr. Seuss, or the Marx Brothers! And just try telling a knock-knock joke in Latin!”

Woe Is I is a handy book to have on your bookshelf. If you are a serious writer, I would advise you to have several reference books on hand. This book includes a bibliography to get you started. O’Connor works very hard to make this an accessible read for the everyday person. She is looking to clarify, not confuse, and so she does not delve heavily into the technicalities of grammar. This is a book you can quickly refer to so you don’t make the embarrassing mistake of writing that your relatives immigrated from Russia. I’m just happy to know that the grammar police will not descend upon me if I occasionally end a sentence with a preposition.

So, fellow writers and editors, what are your favorite writing or grammar guides? 


  1. It wasn't still I started teaching ten year olds this year (I had always taught younger children before, who were learning to write simple sentences with only basic grammar) that I started to think about how crazy our grammar is and how difficult it is to explain. Hats off to the author if she manages to explain it well!

    1. I read some reviews where people argued that it insulted their intelligence, but I would rather have an easy reference guide than find myself completely puzzled!