James Swenson's Reviews > Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English

Woe Is I by Patricia T. O'Conner
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's review
Oct 18, 2011

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Recommended to James by: Goodreads
Read from October 18 to 19, 2011 , read count: 1

I expected to hate Woe Is I, because I hate the illogical, stupid, evil rule on which the title is based. Why shouldn't I say, "Woe is me," using a subject, verb, and object? Some people don't interpret "to be" this way, I guess. There is the "to be" of characterization (Socrates is mortal); the "to be" of inclusion (Socrates is a Greek); the "to be" of identity (Socrates is Plato's teacher); the "to be" of significance (Socrates is rationality itself); the "to be" that's an auxiliary verb (Socrates is drinking hemlock); the "to be" of situation (Socrates is underground); and the "to be" of simple existence (Socrates is). To determine whether the subject pronoun or the object pronoun is more proper, we probably ought to know how the sentence is meant: it depends on what the definition of "is" is.

But it turns out that Patricia T. O'Conner sides with me: it is perfectly all right to use the object pronoun after "to be." [She also accepts sentences that start with "But," though she would not allow "alright."] I flipped through the book until I found this ruling; it cheered me up enough that I was able to enjoy the book. By the time I learned that O'Conner doesn't approve of "hopefully" -- in the sense of "Hopefully you're still reading this review" -- I was feeling tolerant enough not to argue out loud.

For the most part, the subtitle is accurate: if there are any "grammarphobes" who are willing to read a grammar guide, Woe Is I should meet the demand admirably. The examples are well chosen to illustrate while entertaining. I am a grammarphile, but I found a number of things that I hadn't known, such as the (presumably) correct meanings of "effete," "restive," "discomfit," and "immanent" [sic]. [Yes, I too doubt that these constitute grammar, but I'm sure they are appropriate in a "Guide to Better English.]

It would have been good to mention in the Introduction that this is a guide to the grammar of American English; variations in British usage are often, but not always, identified in the text. O'Conner could have done this in the (small) space which she devoted to the claim that "the computer-generated Eliza" is a "rational language" (p. ix): unless there is an Eliza with which I'm not familiar, I don't buy it.

Why not a higher rating? O'Conner has a definite point of view, and isn't afraid to share it:

People who like to dialogue also like to interface. By this they mean interact, or work together. Don't work with them. (p. 125, emphasis original)

But she's just not angry and judgmental enough for my taste. It's not enough to identify errors, and say how silly they are. I want my author to ridicule the people who screwed up, and, where appropriate, condemn them to Hell (e.g., for apostrophes in common plurals).

Finally, it is exciting to type a review of a grammar guide! Considering the likely audience, I feel an unusual degree of pressure to avoid errers.

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