Book Review: “Woe Is I”
Patricia T. O’Conner’s Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English (link to the book on Amazon) sells itself to its target audience with that big word in the subtitle — this book is gentle on the reader — but more confident writers and editors who might just need to look something up now and then will find it a friendly resource as well.
O’Conner, author (sometimes with husband Stewart Kellerman) of several other books about language, educates and entertains with humorous but forthright explanations and whimsical examples, packing a lot of information and advice into just 250 pages. (Puns are rampant, as in the chapter title “Plurals Before Swine” and the section heading “Whom Sweet Whom”).
Chapters treat such topics as pronouns, plurals, and possessives before delving into noun/verb disagreement and the like and discussing misunderstood terms such as decimate and fortuitous, confused pairs like abjure and adjure, and other problematic words and phrases. The next chapter guides poor spellers on commonly misspelled words, offering single-subject sidebars along the way on such topics as words affixed with -able and -ible endings and ful- and full- beginnings.
A short and, for writers, unnecessary chapter on pronunciation is next — skip right to the helpful survey of punctuation, followed by the most important chapter in the book (based on the frequency of perpetration of errors even among professional wordsmiths): the one on dangling modifiers.
O’Connor then offers two chapters on what not to do — a list of tired cliches that need to be sent out to pasture, and a roll call of fallacious grammatical rules (“Do not end a sentence with a preposition” and the like) — before closing with a pep talk about clarity, conciseness, and other basics of good writing.
Woe Is I is a lighthearted antidote to colorless usage manuals — a reference work you’ll actually be inspired to read cover to cover as well as thumb through when you need a refresher.
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