Monday, December 11, 2006

50. Woe is I

by Patricia T. O'Connor

I’m not a huge stickler for grammar and it wasn’t until I started learning Spanish that I even realized how important learning the rules of English really is. Everyone was all crazy about Eats, Shoots & Leaves a couple years ago, but I never picked up that book. I’ve always kind of had my eye on Patricia T. O’Connor’s Woe is I, which seemed less like a gift book and more like a book actually concerned with grammar.

I was disappointed to find that the book was more cutsie (cutsier?) than I expected. O’Connor is fond of writing in the sort of voice that you might expect a kindergarten teacher to use with her students. I realize the book is geared at reintroducing grammar to adults who had bad experiences with it in school and her goal is to show that grammar can be fun (whee!), but stop with the sappy sayings already. I mean, are there really people who still don’t know what a noun and a verb are? If so, do you think they’re taking the time to read a book? My guess is no, so I wish O’Connor had taken knowledge of some things, such as basic subject/predicate agreement, simple plurals, and basic punctuation, for granted and assumed an audience who would actually pick up a grammar book for fun probably already knows most of this stuff. A brief review would have been okay, but the entire chapters dedicated to these subjects were somewhat undermining in their pedagogy.

Nevertheless, O’Connor does offer bounds of information that is useful to any writer who wishes to tidy up her prose (and useful to any reader who is daily faced with authors who break all sorts of grammatical rules). O’Connor deftly answers some grammar issues that have plagued me for some time:

- When multiplying names, you don’t use an apostrophe. It’s “two Johns” and not “two John’s” or two “Johns’” unless you’re expressing possession, of course.

- You do use an apostrophe when multiplying numbers, years, or initials. “1950’s.” “CD’s.” “6’s.”

- When a subject has two parts and one is singular and the other is plural, the verb agrees with the noun closest to it. “Either the papers or the folder is in his locker.” “Neither the bookmark nor the books were on the shelf.” (I already knew how to use either/or and neither/nor, thank you very much.)

- The subjunctive uses “were” not “was,” which is something I’ve always thought was the rule, but which people violate everyday. “I wish I were the kind of person who gets paid to read everyday,” not, “I wish I was…”

- “Stationery” is paper. “Stationary” means standing still. That one still trips me up.

- If a quotation is inside a sentence and not the entire sentence, the ending quotation mark goes inside the final punctuation. I can’t think of any examples of this right now, but I’ve had reason to question it before.

I also finally learned what a dangling participle is (a clause which is attached to a subject other than the one to which it refers) and had several of my grammatical suspicions confirmed. For example, to say “the reason is because” is redundant. I’ve always thought it sounded clumsy, but it turns out that it’s also wrong. It’s okay to start a sentence with “and” or “but”. (Ooh! I just did the quotation thing!) “E.g.” and “i.e.” are not interchangeable – the former means “for example” and the latter means “that is”. It irks me when people use them incorrectly because they’re rather pretentious bits of grammar and you just make yourself look stupid if you do it wrong.

O’Connor also includes several lists of words that are often confused (compliment/complement), sound like they mean something else (“noisome” doesn’t mean “noisy”, but “foul-smelling”), mistaken (“any one” and “anyone”), or just plain used wrong (“impact” is not a verb, people!). Still, I’m not sure how useful Woe is I will be as a reference book. I’d honestly rather have a cut and dry textbook with a killer index that I can flip through whenever I question my grammatical prowess. I don’t need to be convinced of grammar’s importance nor do I need little jokes to fool me into thinking that learning about the English language can be fun. O’Connor’s target audience is the average person who hasn’t thought of grammar since, well, grammar school. While the book is written to appeal to that audience, the book’s greatest fault is assuming this group is its audience. Smarten things up a bit and it could appeal to those of us actually interested in reading and writing, too.

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