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Woe is Grammar But It Doesn’t Have to Be

Although grammar can be superfluous, arcane, and fastidious to many individuals, Woe is I by Patricia O’Conner has forever changed my assumptions about the importance and effectiveness of grammar. Sometimes the position of one comma can change the meaning of a whole sentence. Understanding and applying grammar correctly to exposition is paramount to communication. However, for some the realization that grammar prodigiously affects the clarity and intention of writings does not put them in rapture. Woe is I solves this problem by making grammar simple, enjoyable, and understandable through the use of humor. It also provides readers with an abundance of examples with helpful tips.

Pronouns, Plurals, and Possessives

O’Conner’s first four chapters cover very simple grammatical rules: pronouns, plurals, possessives, and verb agreement. In the pronoun chapter she discusses the six types of pronouns: personal, reflexive, demonstrative, indefinite, interrogative, and relative. She highlights the general rules of when to use certain pronouns and points out exceptions to these pronoun rules too. O’Conner segues into plurals, describing the rules for the endings of plurals: s or es after most words, ies in place of y, and irregular endings are used for some words such as children and geese.

Then, O’Conner moves to possessives. The general rules are add ‘s to singular word, and an s’ to plural possessives, and whose and its are possessive forms not it’s and who’s, which are actually contractions. Next, comes verb agreement, which is making sure the verb is compatible with the subject of the sentence, e.g. Spring’s glory was lost on Olli. Both the subject and the verb are singular in this sentence. The first four chapters of Woe is I cover very simple grammar rules; however O’Conner alludes to the main focus of her book-grammar is constantly changing with time.

Endangered Words, Punctuation, Danglers, and Clichés

Woe is I’s next four chapters talk about endangered words, punctuation, danglers, and clichés. The endangered words section is hilarious and interesting. The section comments on many words that are commonly misused or are falling out of use, e.g. assume means “to take for granted” and presume means “to take too much for granted.” O’Conner is brilliant with her ability to discern and explain the minute nuances of grammar.

O’Conner’s witty humor carries over to the punctuation chapter. She uses it to emphasize the importance of punctuation by illustrating that the position of one comma can change the complete meaning of a sentence, for example Cora claimed Frank planned the murder or Cora, claimed Frank planned the murder. The dangler is the topic of Woe is I’s next chapter; O’Conner’s humor prevails once again. For example, On returning home, Maxine’s phone rang. In this sentence Maxine’s phone is literally coming home. Clichés are covered in the following chapter and O’Connor “nips the problem with clichés in the bud”. O’Conner tears down clichés with acerbic humor, but also points out the usefulness of many clichés so that proponents of clichés are not “shattered with grief.”

The Evolution of Grammar

The final three chapters of Woe is I cover more abstract concepts: bygone rules that do not apply to contemporary grammar, guidelines for the most effective methods to convey ideas, and the degradation of grammatical structure on the internet. She also presents a prognosis for the deprecating colloquial of emails. In the chapter about bygone rules O’Conner is punctilious, making sure to clear up all confusion on what rules were misapplied, mistakenly made, or are optional to use. For example, data is technically plural but because of the evolution of language it can now act as singular too.

The subsequent chapter delineates 14 crucial points to writing effectively: “say what you have to say, stop when you’ve said it, don’t belabor the obvious, don’t tie yourself in knots to avoid repeating words, be direct, don’t make yourself the center of the universe, put descriptions close to what they describe, put the doer close to what’s being done, watch out for pronounitis, make sure there’s a time and place for everything, imagine what you’re writing, put your ideas in order, get the big picture, read with a felonious mind.”

The final chapter about the email system is intriguing. The chapter highlights the potential effectiveness and convenience of emails, but the gross iniquities dealt to grammar by those who abuse the email format with misspelled words, internet jargon, and neglect of punctuation. O’Connor is very strong on the abstract topics in grammar in the final chapters of her book. Furthermore, she is also able to infuse the humor she infused in previous chapters in the final and more complicated chapters.


In summation, Woe is I was a magnificent book for this grammar enthusiast and for “grammarphobes.” O’Connor is a skilled author who uses humor well and is able to convey her arguments intellectually. Because of O’Conner, many new facets of grammar have been shown to readers and all the cloudy facets have been polished to a shiny perfection. O’Connor’s main argument that grammar is always changing and adjusting to the times is carried throughout the book and is extremely effective. However, there will always be those who hate grammar, but if they would just pick up Woe is I they may change their minds.