Woe Is I

The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English

Patricia T. O’Conner
A Grosset/Putnam Book, 1996

 Patricia T. O’Conner, a former editor of the New York Times Book Review, occasionally tripped the light fantastic* in the New York Times Magazine as a guest word maven for William Safire’s celebrated column On Language. Her Woe Is I is a double-deck delight: a solid guide to word usage and an endlessly entertaining read. Setting the tone are chapter titles including “Comma Sutra: The Joy of Punctuation” and “The Living Dead: Let Bygone Rules Be Gone.” The book title itself is taken from Chapter 1 – “Woe Is I: Therapy for Pronoun Anxiety.”

Nine more chapters follow the first, concluding with “Seeing Is Believing: How to Write What You Mean.” Here you’ll find loads of convivial, concise advice on the art of writing well, parceled out under thirteen no-nonsense subheads: 1.Say what you have to say; 2. Stop when you’ve said it; 3. Don’t belabor the obvious; 4. Don’t tie yourself in knots to avoid repeating a word…

A twelve-page glossary combines the purely practical – “Parts of Speech: The eight kinds of words: noun, pronoun, adjective, verb, adverb, preposition, conjunction.” – with the unexpected and light-hearted: “Stuffed Shirt: A person likely to use jargon; similar to a windbag, (see JARGON.)”

SO… go for the Woe: Browse, learn, and prepare to smile yourself silly.

*This phrase was used in slightly different forms in two works by poet/dramatist John Milton (1608–1674). Trip meant “dance nimbly” Today, trip the light fantastic is sometimes used figuratively to suggest “happily steps into or enters.”

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