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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lessening one's woe..., 22 Dec. 2005
This review is from: Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English (Turtleback)
Patricia O'Conner has produced a jewel of a book in `Woe is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English'. Perhaps the greatest strength in the book is the recognition that language is ever-changing and evolving. Thus, her rules are tempered with the reality that sometimes, that which is wrong today might not be wrong tomorrow.
To those of you in the know, 'normalcy' is one of those words that (which?) is actually an improper construct, made to be a viable choice by the fact that a lofty person (in this case, I believe it was a President) used it in public.
This book is filled with tidbits of information for any who are interested in the playfulness of language. I particularly appreciate the part of the book that talks about modern trends -- that which was once improper but is no longer, and those things which might be used but are still suspect.
Amusing stories and examples are scattered about the stories -- I would that my original English grammars would have been so light-hearted and easy to read. Perhaps that is the greatest strength of this book -- that it amuses while it teaches.
It is a short book, so don't be put off by the fact that you're actually reading something of the subject 'grammar', and be relieved to know that even the best of authors succumb to the occasional lapse. And I have praise for the author's resistance to hyper-correctivity, i.e., the tendency to correct oneself or others when the correction adds nothing to the meaning and questionable value in construction.
As Winston Churchill said, 'there are some things up with which I shall not put!'
One person I know recently wrote to me, referencing this book, 'Its best attribute is that it is an extremely pleasant book to read when it's about a topic with which we've been Pavlov-ed to find excruciating.' Below I describe a few of the chapters.
--Woe is I--
Therapy for Pronoun Anxiety
In this section, one learns the proper use for which and that, a problem that continues to plague me. Or is it which? The difference and confusion of it's versus its; it's a problem played out many times daily on Epinions. O'Conner goes into great detail about the most common and lesser known pronoun difficulties. It is something that I myself learned something from (or is that, from which I learned something -- well, that is the subject of another chapter).
--Plurals Before Swine--
Blunders with Numbers
In school it was relatively easy. To make something plural, simply add an 's' to the end. Or sometimes an 'es'. Or sometimes... And the rules kept getting more complex. What happens with irregular words (of which English is full to the brim -- oops, cliches are yet another chapter...). Some words and singluar and plural! Egad! You will also learn enough to be Vice President and then some -- how to you spell the plural of potato? Make sure you have your data straight. Ah, that kind of plural is covered later, too.
--They Beg to Disagree--
Putting Verbs in Their Place
One of the commonplace problems is in verb agreement. Sometimes it can feel like a major negotiation must take place for this happen, and the more complex the sentence and paragraph structure, the longer the negotiations can take simply to agree on a suitable venue for talks. Because verbs constitute such a major part of language, this is the longest chapter of the book. However, you will cover it all, past, present and future, active and passive. This is the heart of the matter.
--Verbal Abuse--
Words on the Endangered List
Words can be endangered for several reasons. The first reason is through constant misuse. O'Conner gives the examples of unique -- which technically means 'one of a kind' and is now a substitute for the word 'unusual' -- and the couplet affect/effect, which tend to be used interchangeably more and more. On the other hand, some phrases like live audience now make sense to us, whereas prior to the advent of recording instruments, it would have been redundant. O'Conner lists commonly misused words like dilemma, literally, and presently, couplets like accept/except, ago/since, and good/well. This section is actually quite long; there is a lot of confusion in the use of the English language. Additionally, there are sections for commonly mis-spelled words, words that could be one or two words, and other common bloopers like alot, which is used a lot.
--Death Sentence--
Do Cliches Deserve to Die?
We can all talk in cliches until the cows come home, but does that make them a bad thing? Sometime a well-reconfigured cliche is the best kind of writing. However, given that language is itself a symbolic and representative construct, to layer on additional symbols to that can create more trouble than it is worth. A well-devised metaphor can be a welcome thing, but be careful not to be excessive, and avoid mixing your metaphors! If you let the cat out of the bag too often the whole ship will go off the rails!
--The Nitty Gritty--
Particia O'Conner is an editor at The New York Times Book Review. She has taught grammar courses, and has 'subbed' for William Safire as a guest columnist while he was holiday. She has a style and wit about her that makes the study of grammar actually fun. This book is for an educated person who has trouble remembering some of the rules; it will make the reader feel good at knowing most of the rules, and enable the reader to laugh at common mistakes made personally and by others.
This book makes grammar fun - a near impossible task. It is a good gift for the person who has everything (save flawless command of English).
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Review Details



Kurt Messick

Location: London, SW1

Top Reviewer Ranking: 8,930