Book Review: Woe is I

Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain EnglishWoe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T. O’Conner

This book is recommended reading for a course on Grammar, Mechanics, and Usage for Editors offered by UC Berkeley. Patricia O’Conner’s portfolio and the list of endorsements at the beginning of the book make her work unassailable, at least by the likes of me. Woe is I is, nonetheless, entertaining and enlightening. If you like Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss, you will probably like Woe is I, and vice versa.

Beyond its entertainment value, Woe is I is a valuable reference for an editor or writer. It would be helpful if the chapter titles and subtitles, for example “Spellbound: How to Be Letter Perfect,” were a bit less cryptic, but that is a minor quibble. The glossary, bibliography, and index are helpful. Keep a magnifying glass handy for reading the index. I also wish the author had said more about reading good writing to improve one’s own, but that coverage is limited to the last paragraph of the last chapter. Again, a minor complaint.

I don’t think of myself as a grammar nerd, but I might use “shall” instead of “will” when writing or speaking in the first person. More pedantic authorities might say that is good and proper, but O’Connor does not. Subject and verb must agree, but prepositions don’t always need to precede their objects. This is not iconoclasm for its own sake, but in the service of effective communication.

If you find English grammar puzzling or unappealing but would still like to improve your communication skills, reading Woe is I is worth reading and keeping for reference.

Thanks as always for stopping by!


Annie Dillard

Yesterday (30th April 2016) was Annie Dillard’s 71st birthday. The Writer’s Almanac for that date describes how she came to write Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

In this week’s The New Yorker Radio Hour host David Remnick interviews Ms. Dillard. It’s worth a listen, although her description of her decision to retire from writing is melancholic.

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Squiggles and Dots

A few days ago our daughter Betsy sent us a photo of Ellie Rose leafing through a copy of a magazine. Ellie is fifteen months old, so the photo isn’t really evidence of her precocity, especially since the section she was looking through at the time is filled with ads for graduate schools and seminaries. But it did start me thinking about forms of communication, and especially about communication that makes use of words.

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Wendell Berry’s A World Lost

Wendell Berry is a writer to whom I return with fair regularity. He writes essays, poetry, and fiction. He is a farmer and a prophet. I had read The Unsettling of America twice and now I’ve read A World Lost twice, along with some of his other novels, poems, and essays that I’ve read once.

There is little in the way of a narrative arc in A World Lost. The narrator is a boy, Andy Catlett, who is ten years old when his uncle and namesake is murdered. He gives descriptions of the murdered uncle, his family and friends, and the places they inhabit. Action and activity are included to provide insight into the characters. Time passes through the course of the book, and there are some chapters that return the reader to an earlier time.

Like much of Wendell Berry’s fiction, A World Lost is set in and around the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky. The territory is almost entirely rural and agrarian, with only a small town and a distant lead mine interrupting the fields and pastures that provide the scenery for this account.

Here are two short passages from A World Lost that are typical of Wendell Berry’s prose. In this first passage the narrator is describing his maternal grandmother. The murdered man was her son and the brother of the narrator’s father.

And so she suffered. She looked upon the human condition, I think, as not satisfactory—unacceptable, notwithstanding that we are in it whether we accept it or not. She was a professed Christian and loved her little weather-boarded church, but I think that it was not easy, and may have been impossible, for her to make peace with our experience of mortality and error, of owning what we cannot correct or save, of losing what we love.

Some years and some pages later we read this:

The year following my grandmother Catlett’s death, I returned with my wife and baby daughter to live through the summer in the old house. Grandma’s things were still there, put away in their places, just as she had left them, and it fell to me to dispose of them. Because she had known no extravagance in her life, she had saved everything salvageable: string, pieces of cloth, buttons and buckles, canceled checks and notes, bits of paper covered with now-meaningless computations and lists, letters and cards, clippings from newspapers—anything that, within the terms and hopes of her life, had seemed valuable or potentially useful or in some way dear.

It seems fitting that, having read this last paragraph, I would spend some time in the past two days shredding some bits of paper belonging to a relative, ten years in the grave, who had saved and stored many, many pieces of cloth and bits of paper. Any family members who happen across this post will be able to name the relative immediately.

Holidays are approaching, and we will gather with family and friends to enjoy good food, exchange a few tokens of esteem and affection, and share a few stories. Savoring the food, both in preparation and in consumption, is not to be taken lightly. Nor are the tokens that we exchange. More so, though, are the stories and the tellers of those stories. We do well to keep them close, to prize them more than anything material that we might consume or exchange.

I wish all of my readers and their families a peaceful and blessed Thanksgiving and holiday season. Thank you for stopping by. I prize your visits.