Resources for Humans

Woe Is I: A Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English

Resources for Humans Managing Editor Celeste Blackburn reviews the book Woe Is I: A Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T. O’Conner. Review highlights book’s tips for writing e-mails and avoiding cliches.

A Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English book review

The pen is mightier than the sword. We’ve all heard it, and since we are meeting on a blog about books, I’d venture to guess that many of you believe it’s true. But how mighty is that pen when the text that flows from it is riddled with grammar errors?
I’ve worn many different career hats that involve writing: I’ve taught college freshmen how to do it, I’ve been a newspaper reporter, and in my latest incarnation, I’m managing writers and writing my own column (about writing). I like to write. I find a great release and sense of satisfaction with each completed piece. But nothing bothers me more than to see a grammatical error in a piece that I labored over glaring up at me from a printed page.
It is with great empathy that I imagine the average professional sitting down to write. When I taught, I learned that writing compositions that others will read is right behind the great fears of public speaking and death. It’s scary to think that what you write will become a permanent record (and make no mistake, once you have written anything, even if it’s just an e-mail, and disseminated it, it’s a permanent record) out there for anyone to read and judge. It was clear to me that much of that fear comes from the unknown. Because while grammar is part of school curriculums from middle school and up, most students seem to escape without learning when to use a colon or how to make a plural possessive.
In Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, Second Edition, Patricia T. O’Conner turns her pen into the mightiest of weapons, cutting down one grammatical mystery after another. She uses a humorous, conversational tone throughout her book , which is a nice contrast to the stark, clinical writing in other grammar guides. She gives sound, easy-to-follow advice on pronouns, possessives, plurals, punctuation, word order and sentence structure, and use and abuse of certain words.
I was particularly happy with her chapter “Death Sentence: Do Cliches Deserve to Die?” Personally, cliches ruin a piece of writing for me far quicker than split verbs or comma splices. This chapter really marks a topical shift in O’Conner’s book from hard-and-fast grammar rules to her suggestions for better writing.
In the chapter “The Living Dead: Let Bygone Rules Be Gone,” O’Conner tells her readers not to worry too much about things like split infinitives and sentences ending with a preposition. She points out that Shakespeare and Chaucer and Milton couldn’t keep away from them. So why should we let them worry us just because some Victorian grammarians, one obsessed with Latin (Latin infinitives cannot be split because they are usually one word) and the other obsessed with the literal meaning of the word “preposition,” declared it to be so?
O’Conner writes, “Chances are, if something you’re reading doesn’t make sense, it’s not your fault – it’s the writer’s,” in the introduction to the chapter “Saying is Believing: How to Write What You Mean.” She goes on to give some great writing tips for writing that both engages and is easy to read.
Finally, as part of the “new and expanded” edition of the book, O’Connor tackles online and e-mail writing. She begins the chapter with, “And now, a word to the wired: E-mail is no excuse for lousy English” (emphasis added). I couldn’t agree more. As I mentioned earlier, any form of communication that you write becomes a permanent record. That’s as true for the strategic report you have to turn in to your boss as it is for the hasty e-mail you send to a colleague. In fact, it’s probably easier for that e-mail to leak and spread to unintended recipients than the report. She writes, “Sure, your best friend will overlook a few misspellings or lapses in grammar. But people you’ve never met will judge you solely by what they see on their computer screens. To them, you are what you write.” I couldn’t agree more. O’Connor goes on to give several good tips on writing for e-mail and other online forums.
This book is a great reference book for anyone who must write for the job. It’s much easier to read and understand than stodgy grammar manuals and cuts out the clutter of the finer points and obscure rules that 99 % of us will never need. If you experience that creeping fear of being found out as a literary fraud every time you have to write something for work, Woe is I is a must-have for your bookshelf.

I give this book 5 out of 5 stars.

Celeste Blackburn is managing Editor of HR Insight.