By Reba Hull Campbell
Woe is I. She is going with Margaret and I. Which one is grammatically correct? The first one might sound wrong to the ear but is actually correct. The second one might sound right but isn’t.
Did you have to stop and think about this? You’re not alone.
In her national bestseller, “Woe is I,” author Patricia T. O’Connor spends 250ish easy-to-read pages tackling these and many other ticklish grammatical issues. I recently spent a rainy Saturday browsing through my collection of books about writing looking for something to re-read. This one was just too good to pass up.
Using humor, puns and clever “turns of words,” O’Connor makes even the most dedicated grammar-phobe discover topics like commas and capitalization, plurals and participles can be interesting and, yes – even fun – to read about.
The best line in the book’s introduction says “Most of us don’t know a gerund from a gerbil and don’t care, but we’d like to speak and write as though we did.” Without technical jargon or mumbo jumbo about subjunctive mood or transitive verbs, O’Connor uses clever puns and fun examples to help a reader remember simple rules that might have fallen by the wayside over the years.
One of the best chapters of the book reminds readers that writing is all about the reader, not the writer. She notes that a revered tradition dating back to Greek orators teaches if you don’t know what you’re talking about, “ratchet up the level of difficulty and no one else will ever know.” A good writer, on the other hand, can express ideas clearly and concisely without engaging the reader in a mental workout.
In this easy read, O’Connor takes on common errors in spelling, usage and punctuation. An entire chapter is devoted to ridding writing of overused clichés (although she admits some clichés can be used sparingly in the right context). New to this second edition I recently re-read is a chapter about email communication and electronic communication etiquette.
While some strict grammarians would beg to differ in her approach, O’Connor also takes on some rules she says should no longer see the light of day. Tricky issues such as split infinitives, double negatives and starting a sentence with “but” would all be laid to rest if O’Connor had her way.
As she notes, “Sometimes an ancient prohibition becomes outdated, or it may turn out that a musty convention was never really a rule at all.” Just beware that some strict editors – and picky readers – might not find is so easy to lay aside some of these rules, so tread lightly when invoking O’Connor’s “tombstone” list of outdated rules.
After re-reading this book in a week-end, I was curious about whether my second edition had been updated. Thanks to a quick Google search, I learned it has now been released in a fourth edition. Can’t wait to dive into O’Connor’s take on lots of 21st century conundrums such as the use of “they” and “their” in place of “he/she” and “him/her.” These are the things that keep a word nerd up at night!
So grammar and punctuation fun? In this book, the answer is yes. Who’d have thunk?
After more than 35 years working at the intersection of government and communications, Reba is enjoying her post-retirement “bonus career” writing, teaching and consulting. Reba is passionate about travel; writing; learning to play the uke, guitar and keyboard; and staying connected with old friends. Reba can be reached at [email protected] and @rebahcampbell on Instagram and Twitter