Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Woe is I, The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, by Patricia T. O’Conner (1996)

If you’re like me and love the English language, particularly the written word and its impact and power to persuade and beguile and move the reader, then you might enjoy certain facets of this book. I can’t find much to recommend it, though. The chapter titles – Plurals Before Swine, Comma Sutra, and Death Sentence – are better than the chapters themselves, which are too cursory for my tastes. But if you’re intimidated by the rules of sentence structure, if you associate English professors with the grammar Gestapo or ruler-wielding nuns eager to rap your knuckles when your tenses are wrong or your noun and verb don’t agree, the subtitle says it all: this book is for those frightened by word rules. O’Conner offers a Grammar Guidelines for Dummies kind of approach with mild humor and friendly advice and none of the intimidating jargon normally associated with the subject.

If, however, you’re a grammarphile – if you like to play name-that-gerund at parties, can conjugate verbs in your sleep, and enjoy uttering interjections just for the hell of it – then you’ll probably label this an entertaining romp through English grammar but not particularly helpful. Better to get The Elements Of Style, by William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White, or the grammar Bible I still refer to (part of a series put out by Cliffs Notes Inc. geared toward students) called Writing: Grammar, Usage, and Style by Jean Eggenschwiler. Unlike O’Conner’s Woe is I, Eggenschwiler's book isn't the least bit amusing. But it’s exhaustive and highly reference worthy.

Funny thing about grammarians, while they recognize the need to adhere to standards, they acknowledge these standards change and even welcome this change, within reason. They know some words go from priceless to pretentious in a lifetime, that some phrases begin exciting and innovative and grow facile and clichéd in a few scant decades. We grammarphiles aren’t curmudgeons about language, clinging to dusty verbiage while denouncing new colloquialisms. We rejoice over a fresh turn of phrase, an innovative use of a word. But we condemn or resist (depending on our devotion to the rules) certain abuses or corruptions. In fact, ‘grammarphobes’ and ‘grammarphiles’ are prime examples of good uses of familiar words combined to form and express fresh ideas. But lines are still drawn.  

Regrettably, some of my favorite words – perhaps, Slinky, bidet, callow, Hula Hoop, fornicate – now linger only in novels and novelty shops. I have to remind myself that English is a dynamic and evolving language. I’m not old enough to remember when ‘mad’ meant ‘insane’ but I do remember when ‘cool’ denoted either temperature or a calm head and wasn’t yet an interjection. To witness the wearing down of cherished, stalwart words, to watch them (and hear them) lose their relevance and usage, is bittersweet, like seeing off your child as he reaches adulthood and leaves the home for college or marriage or whatever. Regardless the reason, it’s still hard to say goodbye.

I can hear the collective sigh of legions of grammarians as they begrudgingly capitulate to the influx of verbal curiosities, knowing today’s annoyances will become tomorrow’s entry into the official lexicon. I, too, still catch myself rolling my eyes when someone says he’s nauseous when he really means he’s nauseated. Or when someone uses the term less to describe individual things that make a group. I grew up in the south where cain’t and ain’t are commonplace and wool isn’t just a sheep’s coat. It’s a substitute for the interjection well as in “Wool, there were literally less people there than I expected.” No, there were fewer people there, and drinking at that party didn’t make you nauseous. It nauseated you. You were nauseated. To say you’re nauseous is to say you’re disgusting rather than disgusted or repulsive rather than repulsed. Someone should figuratively take the word ‘literally’ out back and shoot it between the eyes, by the way, and bury it six feet under some inconspicuous topsoil. There, it can RIP beside worn out clichés and possessives posing as contractions and vice versa.  

O’Conner acknowledges in her Introduction that grammar is an “ever evolving set of rules for using words in ways that we can all agree on” and that “the laws of grammar come and go”. Yet even she occasionally bemoans the misuse of words and decries the corrupting influence ignorance and indifference has on the English language. One might argue the grammarian’s rules are arbitrary. Maybe our restless language is the mustang that can’t be tamed, remaining beautiful only because it roams freely, requiring just enough law to preserve its habitat.  

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