[17 November 2009]
As a professional writer and English major, I had always wanted to believe that Woe Is I was a book miles below my reading level. I am not, after all, a grammarphobe. I like words. I always answer “I’m well,” instead of “I’m good.” I know the difference between you’re and your. And best of all, I almost always have a professional editor on call to catch whatever mistakes I might make. But when I learned that Patricia O’Connor had produced a third edition of the famous book, I got an intuitive feeling that it was time for me to finally read it. In my heart of hearts, I know my grammar isn’t perfect. Furthermore, editors don’t always catch mistakes. I recalled a piece I’d written in which my editor and I both missed my wildly incorrect usage of the word, “incidences” instead of “incidents.” Although it had slipped by us, it was caught by a reader who was angry enough to find my personal blog and write a comment calling me a “dunce.’
If I had read O’Connor’s book before that day, I would have known better. I also would have been able to make a case for the modern meaning of decimate (it no longer means killing off ten percent, but it definitely doesn’t mean “wipe out completely”). I would have been able to inform my editor that it is permissible to have “myriad” or “a myriad” questions about grammar. I would have spent less time agonizing about hyphens and never would have complained that was I was “chomping at the bit.” (Apparently it’s “champing at the bit.”)
In truth, the book is as suitable for lovers of language as it is for those who fear commas. O’Connor inadvertently teaches a great deal about how to write elegant, economical, and clear sentences. Reading the book felt like sharpening a knife; I thought I knew how to write, when in fact my brain was a bit dull in many areas. It occured to me that this book is even more important for writers than it is for average people. Underneath O’Connor’s cutesy, down-to-earth explanations, clarifications, and references to movies is a tribute to the art of the the English language. Much of what O’Connor knows is so specific that we could get away without doing it correctly, but the real revelation is how truly effective language can be when we stick to the rules. (Or break them. O’Connor also tells when we should ignore convention in favor of coherency.)
Her book is testament to the living, breathing nature of language. Not only does she relay important information about how words should be used, she reports on how language is used. It is an important reference for any writer to at least have on file, if not to read from cover-to-cover. It is the sort of book that can be read one chapter at a time for inspiration and insight. But for those who are seeking a comprehensive grammar education, the book is easily digestible and littered with pop culture examples that will appeal to real grammarphobes. Apparently, Paris Hilton is as ubiquitous as pronoun misuse.