On a cold blustery Sunday afternoon during the last week of March 2010 – while the snow slowly melted from our coastal Maine home, and frigid temperatures kept us inside our “dream house in the woods” – I published an article on Associated Content entitled Syntax Cut: Five Commandments for Writing Excellent Reviews.The first of those five commandments extolled the virtues of keeping on hand a reliable set of writer’s reference books.
Those books, I opined, include a dictionary, a thesaurus, and a writer’s style manual.
Now I’m a man who practices what I preach. If you were to take a peek at my computer desk (a daunting task even for the strongest of heart), one of the first things you’d probably see is a stack of well-worn books that I regularly employ whenever I write reviews, short stories… well, anything, for that matter. Included in that stack: the Oxford American Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus; Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style; the Harbrace College Handbook; and a thin, nondescript paperback volume entitled Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English In Plain English, by Patricia T. O’Conner.
I’ve been writing, in different venues, for the better part of four decades. When I was in high school, I won several essay contests. Of course, there were the obligatory term papers in both high school and college. In order to fulfill the requirements for my Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree, I wrote 11 term papers, 27 book reviews, and one 67-page independent study – written material totaling over 300 pages – over the course of 15 months. After I received my Master’s degree in 1987, I dabbled in poetry, short stories, and fiction whenever my insanely busy work schedules and my family obligations permitted. For the past ten years, I have been writing online content for several Internet sites. Through it all, I’ve always sought to hone my writing skills, even though I’ve never submitted my work for print publication.
Whenever I wrote, I always kept my writer’s reference books right by my side. Since I first discovered Woe Is I nearly ten years ago, it has become my most oft used writer’s style manual. It’s a wonderfully written book, now in its third edition, authored by a former editor of the New York Times Book Review. Patricia O’Conner consistently demonstrates a clear command of the English language, her considerable expertise as a professional writer, and an outstanding ability to entertain her readers with her keen sense of humor.
Woe Is I is designed for writers like you and me (or… is it you and I?)… people who write good (or… is it well?) but perhaps forget, now and then, those wonderfully streamlined, simple rules of English grammar. For example:
Do you know the rule governing when to use “which” and “that” in a sentence? Should the sentence read:
A. The movie which interested us most was Jurassic Park 3.
B. The movie that interested us most was Jurassic Park 3?
If you guessed “A,” congratulations – you win a gold star!! According to O’Conner, the word “which” should only be used in an independent clause that contains information not essential to the basic meaning of sentence. The “which” clause is normally set off by commas. If you remove the clause, you’re still left with a grammatically correct sentence with its basic meaning left intact. For example:
The theater, which holds 300 people, is located on Main Street.
Take out the “which” clause, and you have:
The theater is located on Main Street.
As you can see, the sentence is still grammatically correct and has its basic meaning left intact, although it’s a bit less detailed than before.
This is but one example of what O’Conner covers in her marvelous book. Other topics (using O’Conner’s very witty chapter titles):
Therapy for Pronoun Anxiety clears up confusion on such burning grammatical issues as who, whom, whose, who’s; that versus which; I versus me; and many other common pronoun problems.
Plurals Before Swine assists writers in properly using singular and plural forms of words. (Is it… “attorney generals” or “attorneys general?” “Brigadiers General” or “Brigadier Generals?” If “politics stinks” in general, do “Jerry’s politics stinks” in particular?)
Having difficulty understanding the “possessives” and the “possessed?” May I refer you to Yours Truly, where you’ll find more solutions to the problematic issues of: Its and It’s; who’s and whose; theirs and there’s; and many others.
If getting those obstinate verbs to agree with their subjects is difficult, look in They Beg to Disagree for answers. (Is it “Milk and cream is fine…” or “Milk and cream are fine?” Do I write: “I wish I was there… or ” I wish I were there?”)
Ever written a sentence like this: “Joe was diagnosed with the mumps.” (Do you diagnose the patient… or the disease?) When do you use affect/effect; ago/since; accept/except; assume/presume; as if/as though; and many others? Verbal Abuse easily and competently guides you through this particular thicket.
Comma Sutra covers the proper use punctuation in sentences. (How and when to use commas, periods, colons, semicolons, quotation marks, and ellipses…)
The Compleat Dangler helps you get those modifying clauses into the right position in a sentence. (“Hot and thirsty, a cold beer sounded good to me…” What was hot and thirsty… me or the beer? “Tail wagging merrily, Bertie took the dog for a walk…” hmmmm…)
Death Sentence pronounces the ultimate penalty on clichés and trite phrases. Her multi-page list includes such gems as: acid test; bite the bullet; broad daylight; each and every; food for thought; moment of truth; team player; tip of the iceberg; and my personal favorite: passed away. (What’s wrong with simply saying “died,” anyway?!)
The Living Dead puts to rest those “phantom” rules that everyone thinks should be followed, but are either outdated (remember… English is a “living” language), or don’t exist at all. (examples: Don’t split an infinitive; always put the subject of a sentence before a verb; never use a double negative; and more.)
The examples I’ve given in the previous paragraphs are but the tip of the iceberg (sorry… I couldn’t resist!!) in Woe Is I. Patricia O’Conner expertly deals with a myriad of other common grammatical errors and confusing rules, and does so in a lighthearted manner that’s always easy to read and understand, and very entertaining.
Over the past few years, I’ve found myself gravitating with increased frequency to Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English In Plain English as I seek answers to my questions concerning proper grammar and good writing style. To be sure, my other writer’s style manuals are more academic sounding and, in some cases, go into greater detail in elucidating the rules of written English. But, whenever I want a quick, common-sense, and always reliable explanation to what makes for a well written, lively, and interesting sentence, Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English In Plain English has the answer.
Chapter titles and examples from: Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English In Plain English, by Patricia T. O’Conner. (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996).