Another Page: ‘Woe Is I’
I’m going to spend the next two weeks on conversational, common-sense usage and grammar guides. For one thing, I pay the bulk of the bills as a professional copy editor, so these issues are important to me. For another, perhaps the most troubling things I see in new writers — and in far too many veterans — are sloppy uses of words and a fleeting grasp of grammar.
As my friend David Otey once pointed out (probably more eloquently than I will here): Writing that adheres to the conventions of grammar is not unoriginal and boring; it is, instead, a service to those who read it. If you’re a professional writer, or want to be one, lucidity is a noble aim.
First up is a fine book by Patricia T. O’Conner, Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English.
The brilliance of this book rests with O’Conner’s style, which is conversational and, at times, wickedly funny. Moreover, she does every reader a service by not only outlining the proper approach to style and grammar but also by taking dead aim at those hoary prohibitions that seem to persist, generation after generation.
I’m speaking here of split infinitives, split verb phrases, beginning a sentence with a conjunction, ending a sentence with a preposition, none as a plural, etc. In my line of work, far too many of the bosses who brought me up were slavish to these and other such bugaboos. (I once had a supervisor who said, with a straight face, that every word in the English language should mean only one thing, to cut down on the confusion.) They ran pieces through weird sets of filters that were partly rooted in established style and partly in pet peeves. What O’Conner tries to do is cut through the nonsense and arm writers and editors with solid information that will truly make a difference in how their work is presented. And she succeeds.
The beginning writer or editor will find this book a good primer on the basics. Someone with a few more years behind the plow will find clear-eyed backup and, perhaps, some new discoveries.
It’s highly recommended.
Next week: My second style and usage recommendation. Hint: It’s not Strunk & White. Indeed, I subscribe to the notion that The Elements of Style does far more harm than good, especially for beginning writers. But that’s a post for another time.