Patricia T. O’Conner makes it fun to learn the rules that – not which – your child needs to know
Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. By Patricia T. O’Conner. Riverhead, 256 pp., $14, paperback. Ages 13–adult.
By Janice Harayda
A few weeks ago, I got an e-mail note from a parent who had a grammar question. His English teachers had told him that when two parts of a sentence are joined by and or but, you should always separate them with a comma. His teenage son’s teachers said his teachers were wrong. Who was right? Answer: the son’s teachers. You use a comma to separate two parts of a sentence when both have a subject and verb. You don’t use a comma when they don’t. I gave my friend this example of two correctly punctuated sentences:
I went to the store, and I bought some bread.
I went to the store and bought some bread.
If you and your child are wrestling with questions like these, you need Patricia T. O’Conner’s Woe Is I, the best grammar book for students (and their parents). Woe Is I has all the hallmarks of an ideal grammar book for modern families. It’s comprehensive enough to answer any question you might have. It’s authoritative without handing down archaic rules that no longer make sense. It has an index and chapter titles that make it easy to find the answers you need, whether you wonder when to use that and which or whether it’s ever all right to use alright (no). And O’Conner has a conversational — but not sloppy – writing style that makes her book fun to use. A chapter on commas, for example, is called “Comma Sutra.”
Woe is I also has things that most grammar books don’t. One is a chapter on clichés that lists nearly 100 overworked words or phrases and what’s wrong with each. Some of my favorites lines from it:
“Bone of contention. This expression is getting osteoporosis.
“Generation gap. An even worse cliché, Generation X, is already geriatric.
“It goes without saying. Then don’t say it.
“Team player. When your boss says you should be more of a team player, that means she wants you to take on more of her work.
“To the manner born. If you’re going to use a cliché, respect it. This Shakespearean phrase (it comes from Hamlet) means ‘accustomed to’ or ‘familiar with’ a manner of living. It is not ‘to the manor born’ and has nothing to do with manor houses
O’Conner is too permissive for my tastes on some issues, such as whether you can use since to mean because and who instead of whom. But she offers so much good advice not just on grammar but on writing in general that I put Woe Is I on the required reading list for a college journalism class I taught recently. If you think your child could never enjoy grammar, listen to what one student said about after reading the first chapter I assigned: “I love this book! It’s the funniest textbook I’ve had to read.”
Best line: “English is a glorious invention, one that gives us endless possibilities for expressing ourselves. Grammar is there to help, to clear up ambiguities and prevent misunderstandings.”
Worst line: O’Conner says it’s fine to use since to mean “because.” But she admits that this could cause problems in a phrase such as, “Since we spoke, I’ve had second thoughts”: “In that case, since could mean either ‘from the time that’ or ‘because,’ so it’s better to be more precise.” Similar problems could occur in a lot of other situations. So why not stick to the rule that calls for using since only to indicate a time period (such as, “since Thursday”)?
Recommended if … you could use help with your grammar, English, or writing.
Caveat reader: This review was based on the hardcover edition. Woe Is I is a book for adults that is also appropriate for students in the eighth grade and above. It may appeal to some sixth- and seventh-graders who read well.
FYI: A former member of the staff of The New York Times Book Review, O’Conner answers grammar questions on her Web site www.grammarphobia.com. She also appears on National Public Radio as a language expert.
© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.