Woe is I

Woe is I by Patricia T. O’ConnerFull Title: Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English
Author: Patricia T. O’Conner
Publisher: Riverhead Books (2010)
Number of Pages: 265
How long it took me to read: 1 month, 2 weeks, 5 days
Where I bought this book: Amazon.com
ISBN: 978-1-57322331-7

Like a Moth to a Flame

I’m starting an advanced editing program at UC Berkeley in a couple of weeks. This is one of the books on our reading list. It’s the only one that doesn’t look like a grammar recipe book and it weighs less than a small boulder, so I figure it will be manageable to take with me on the train. Wish me luck!

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Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5.Restaurateur. Notice that there’s no ‘n’ (and don’t believe dictionaries or spell-checkers that tell you there is). The root is a word meaning ‘restore’. The ‘restaurateur’ (the person who restores you) runs the ‘restaurant’ (where you go to get restored).” (pp.143-4)

4. “…good old spell-check doesn’t always come through. Turn your back on it, and it’ll kick you in the but. There! That’s what I mean. My software didn’t catch that ‘but’ because, as we all know, it can’t tell the difference between sound-alike words: ‘but’ and ‘butt’, ‘need’ and ‘kneed’, ‘sew’ and ‘sow’, and so on. Confidentially, your spell-checker isn’t very smart. It doesn’t care whether someone’s a ‘guerrilla’ or a ‘gorilla’, lives in a ‘desert’ or a ‘dessert’, has a ‘sweet’ tooth or a ‘suite’ tooth. It’s not picky.” (pp.129-30)

3. “There are no rules for graceful writing, at least not in the sense that there are rules for grammar and punctuation. Some writing manuals will tell you to write short sentences, or to cut out adjectives and adverbs. I disagree. The object isn’t to simulate an android. When a sentence sounds nice, reads well, and is easy to follow, its length is just right.” (p.224)

2. “The house of grammar has many rooms, and some of them are haunted. Despite the best efforts of grammatical exorcists, the ghosts of dead rules and the spirits of imaginary taboos are still rattling and thumping about the old place.” (p.209)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “…English sentences are often constructed without regard for building codes.” (p.190)

New Words

Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.

New Word: pedant (noun)

Definition (Source: WordBook iPhone App): a person who pays more attention to formal rules and book learning than they merit
Synonyms: bookworm, scholastic
Origins: from Middle French pedant; from Italian pedante ‘a teacher, schoolmaster, pedant’; of uncertain origin, traced by some sources to Latin paedagogans present participle of paedagogare ‘to teach’
As in: “Hundreds of years after the first Ophelia cried ‘Woe is me,’ only a pedant would argue that Shakespeare should have written ‘Woe is I’ or ‘Woe is unto me.’ ” (p.1)

New Word: apocryphal (adjective)

Definition (Source: WordBook iPhone App): being of questionable authenticity
Origins: from Late Latin apocryphus ‘secret, not approved for public reading’; from Greek apokryphos ‘hidden, obscure’; from apo– ‘away’ + kryptein ‘to hide’; properly plural (the single would be apocryphon), but commonly treated as a collective singular; apocryphal of doubtful authenticity is from 1590
As in: “[Reverend William A. Spooner] was known for his tongue-tanglers, though most of the ones attributed to him (like ‘It is kisstomary to cuss the bride’) are apocryphal.” (p.189)

New Word: felonious (adjective)

Definition (Source: WordBook iPhone App): involving or being or having the nature of a crime
Synonyms: criminal
Origins (Source: Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Ed.): 1567
As in: “There’s no easy way to raise your writing from competence to artistry. It helps, though, to read with a felonious mind.” (p.235)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“I’m really enjoying myself with O’Conner. After I forget that I’m doing homework when I read this book, I really start to relish exploring my love affair with words. Don’t get me wrong, there are moments when I feel incredibly stupid and wish I could go back and edit yesterday’s article differently, but I’m much more comfortable being reminded of how much more I have to learn than being injected with the numbing agents of blissful ignorance and all-knowing arrogance. O’Conner has managed to write a book about grammar that reads like a conversation with a friend.”

“I’m not convinced that the problem is that we don’t teach enough grammar at school. I think the problem is that we don’t teach Latin anymore. My husband, whose first language is not English, got more correct than I did when I quizzed him on the chapter on verbal abuse. I was embarrassed and totally impressed, all in the same verbally mangled moment. The meaning of enervating didn’t phase him. The difference between compliment and complement was so obvious to him that I was tempted to make as though I was just teasing him so that I could save face. The way he described the birds continually chirping in the courtyard over the continuous drone of the freeway traffic was the last straw. There’s obviously a reason I’m reading this book and he isn’t. Five years of Latin did his body good, while I doubt I’ll use a word of my 10 resentful years of French when I touch down in Quebec in a few days.”

“O’Conner notes the occasional differences between American and British spelling and grammar, but she doesn’t mention the nature of Canada’s contribution to the language. Am I just being a sensitive Canuck? Should I assume that Canadian English is really just British English without the accent?”

“Who helped make this book a national best seller? I’d love to see the sales demographics. Considering the state of the informal dialogue you hear on the street and the bloody psychotic emphasis on cutting sentiments down to fewer and fewer characters, it’s difficult to believe that anyone other than editors and devout wordsmiths would bother spending time with O’Conner. And that makes me sad because she’s funny and witty and makes a book about rules a really fun read.

“Sitting across from two wind-whipped French-speaking tourists at the Starbucks near Fort Frontenac, I can pretend that they’re speaking perfect French. I can easily imagine that every word slipping off their glassy tongues is carefully chosen to create the beautiful melodies fluttering my way. I cannot, however, pretend that the English-speaking teenagers next to them aren’t determined to massacre every thought they foolishly sputter from their foul spouts. Ignorance is bliss, but it only lasts for so long.

“So who buys this book and where do they live? Let me at them to thank them for their support of what so often feels like a dying art. Oh, I can just picture the bounties that sit on their bedside tables–the stories and fables and critical reviews they’ll soon be reading. No talk of which American Idol star they voted for or how many carrots they harvested in FarmVille. Just words. Beautiful, properly arranged, and patiently chosen words. Words that have been in the dictionary for more than a month, and have graced the pages of classic stories that…you’ll often find in the discount piles at local bookstores and yard sales.”

1 Comment

  1. A beautifully written review as always. The language in this one looks decidedly appealing–it’s always delightful to see a grammar-focused volume delighting in the wonder of words and language rather than rapping its readers over the knuckles with the ruler of prescriptivism.

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