[Read my interview with Ms. O’Connell about her book here.]
I lugged one grammar textbook or another back and forth to school for years when I was a kid. Now I have a classroom set of grammar books no student makes reference to without my insistence. As a student, and later as a teacher, I’ve wondered: What would happen if students read grammar books?
Grammar books usually contain too much information and not enough context, and they interrupt themselves with daunting sets of exercises (without the answer keys) every two or three pages. Patricia T. O’Conner, though, seems to base her new book Woe Is I Jr. on two premises: kids can learn grammar by reading about it in a book, and kids will read the right grammar book. After reading O’Conner’s approachable and engaging book, I have come to agree with both premises.
Released today, Woe Is I Jr.: The Younger Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English applies the principles that made its adult-oriented predecessor, Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, one of the most popular recent grammar books. In both books, O’Conner demystifies points of grammar by employing deftly stated rules and examples, a minimum of grammatical jargon, and an abundance of humor. With Woe Is I Jr., she transitions to a younger audience – students in the fourth through six grades – with a thorough understanding of its reading and grammatical levels.
Woe Is I Jr. contains no exercises or other indicia of a grammar textbook. The book amounts to an informal conversation between an adult and middle-grade children about all the English grammar the children will be expected to master for the time being, along with punctuation, spelling (including homonyms), clichés, and effective online writing.
The drollness in Woe Is I downshifts to a younger audience in Jr. The introduction, for instance, makes this point: “You use grammar even when you talk to your pets, who sometimes listen and sometimes don’t.” O’Conner uses frequent puns, lots of grammatical examples with humorous allusions familiar to American children, delightful poetry, and many fine cartoons by Tom Stiglich.
O’Conner’s lack of jargon makes the book’s grammar approachable and fresh. Independent clauses are “mini-sentences,” contractions are “preshrunk words,” and the subjunctive mood is a “wishful mood.” The apostrophe is described as “a tiny 9 with the hole filled in.” The big, scary grammatical words (big and scary for adults, too) are mostly relegated to the book’s glossary.
Some of her methods are tried and true, which I found affirming. Like O’Conner (and surely a lot of other grammar teachers besides me), I introduce pronouns by giving students a taste of a ludicrously pronoun-less world, and I demonstrate the surprisingly singular number of certain pronouns with ludicrous, three-word sentences (such as, “Are everybody happy?”). I have students restore the “invisible” part of sentences to find whether a predicate’s pronoun should be “I” or “me.” I introduce a lesson on commas in sentences by showing students a sentence that can have two different meanings depending on where one puts the comma.
But I haven’t gotten it down nearly so simply or so well as O’Conner yet. She nimbly defines a figure of speech as “a colorful expression that uses words in an imaginative way.” And I’ve never seen the distinction between “fewer” and “less” put so succinctly or so well: “Use fewerfor a smaller number of individual things, and less for a smaller amount of one thing.”
Saying it simply doesn’t make O’Conner shy away from presenting difficult rules she thinks middle-grade students should be aware of. For instance, she begins her verb chapter with the challenging area of subject-verb agreement, and by the chapter’s fourth page she’s explaining some of the six indefinite pronouns that can be singular or plural (without the grammar education jargon I’m using here).
Students reading Woe Is I Jr. will sense two things that were not evident from the grammar books I was forced to work with growing up: English words and grammar evolve, and experts sometimes disagree about some of the grammar rules. O’Conner is a traditionalist where most grammarians (and word lovers) would be traditionalists: there are distinctions worth preserving for future generations between “bring” and “take” as well as between “can” and “may,” for instance. But she debunks some hangers-on originating in poorly reasoned, centuries-old textbooks, such as the rule against “split” infinitives.
I hope many middle-grade students will be introduced to Woe Is I Jr. through school, home, or the public library. They would benefit from reading in just a few sittings what most elementary and middle schools would love to have their students master after seven or eight years. I don’t think they would necessarily have full command of the material after reading Woe Is I Jr. once, but they would feel more confident when they run across the rule again. Reading a book, after all, makes the material our own, and we often take an owner’s interest in affirming our knowledge of the book’s material through further study.
Woe Is I Jr. amounts to a reference book as well as a cover-to-cover grammatical overview. The book contains a number of helpful lists, including a list of “respectable pronouns” and a mix-and-match list of our language’s worst clichés. Well organized and indexed, Woe Is I Jr. will remain a ready reference for students into their high school years. I know I’ll be using it as a teaching resource as well as a personal reference book.
Woe Is I Jr. covers roughly eighty percent of what I’d love for my ninth graders to know by this summer. I’m embarrassed to say that I myself learned two or three points of grammar from the book. I guess that’s what happens when an author digests the rules of grammar while working for over thirty years as an editor and a writer, and presents the rules as simply and as entertainingly as possible: people learn grammar.