“Language is a kind of play!”

Exclusive interview with Patricia T. O’Conner on grammar, Woe Is I Jr., and her new, preadolescent readers.
You’ve worked as an editor for more than twenty years, including fifteen years with The New York Times editing book reviews.  It seems obvious that working as an editor would improve one’s grammar, but I’m curious about how editing other people’s work helped to shape your ideas of how people could learn grammar better.

Working with reporters, reviewers, and essayists made me familiar with the kinds of grammatical difficulties that even the brightest, best-educated writers face every day.  These are the kinds of problems I used as a basis for writing Woe Is I.  What’s more, I found that on the job I had to explain the solutions in simple, plain English. This is what I tried to do in the book as well.

You wrote your original book, Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, in 1996 at the request of a book editor who wanted a lighthearted grammar guide.  Why do you think the book became a bestseller?

I don’t think anyone before me had ever tried to address grammar problems without using the complicated and intimidating terminology of formal grammar. And the book was funny besides, which was a novelty for a grammar book then.

What lead you to write Woe Is I Jr., a similar book for middle-graders?

When the original book came out, parents and teachers told me they found it helpful in explaining grammar to children, and suggested that an edition especially for kids would fill a niche. But I never acted on their suggestions until Susan Kochan, a very gifted editor at the Penguin Young Readers Group, pressed me to do an edition for fourth- through sixth-graders.

You seem to get middle-school kids: their reading level, their capacity for understanding grammar, and their humor.  What did you have to do to prepare for — and to adjust your writing for — what I suppose is your first children’s book?

I corralled the children of my friends, and I asked dozens of kids from my neighborhood school as well as young library patrons to answer questionnaires designed for ages 9 through 12. The responses were priceless! All the kids who helped are getting free copies of the book, as well as thanks in the acknowledgments.

What would you like to see children come away from Woe Is I Jr. with?

I’d like to encourage a love for language and a fascination with words. Words, after all, can be a lot of fun, and language is a kind of play! Too many kids find grammar intimidating, and that’s a real tragedy.

In the book’s acknowledgements you mention a particular fifth-grade class in Roxbury, Connecticut, as well as about thirty individual children.  Tell me how they assisted you, if you would.

They helped by telling me about the books and movies and television shows and musical groups they enjoy. This told me a lot about the way they interact with their culture and what kinds of examples I should use to illustrate grammatical concepts. It was important to me to make the book child-friendly and child-centered. Teachers and school administrators also helped tremendously.

What kinds of things did you enjoy about writing this book?

I loved thinking like a 10-year-old. I’m still trying to resume my adult persona!

The book contains delightful poetry that illustrates your points.  What gave you the idea to include poetry, and did you enjoy writing it?

I’ve always loved silly poems, and it was a treat to be able to write some.

You conclude Woe Is I Jr. with a chapter on online writing.  You seem encouraged that instant messaging, email, and blogging are getting young people to write more, but you are concerned that students may not transition their grammar and usage to fit their audience.  Is the chapter a summary of You Send Me: Getting It Right When You Write Online, a book you co-authored with your husband, Stewart Kellerman?  (You sound like an editor when you write about that book on your web site: “The important thing is that we’re writing again, and it’s better to write badly than not at all.”)
No, the online writing tips in Woe Is I Jr. don’t exactly echo those in You Send Me, which was written for adults. Children approach e-mail and instant messaging and text messaging differently than adults do. For kids, it’s play, and for the time being I think we should allow it to be play, with certain guidelines of course. The good news is that kids are sitting at keyboards and writing—putting words together and making sentences. Hurray!

Where do you think English grammar will be in fifty years?  How, if at all, do you think it will be taught?

I think grammar—that is, the systematic study of how words form sentences—will make a comeback as a legitimate part of the school curriculum, not just a token “unit” inserted into the Language Arts curriculum. The same thing, I believe, has to happen with math. A society whose people don’t know how to compute, to read, or to write is not going to remain a world power for long.

You seem to have a dynamic philosophy about English grammatical rules, one more associated with Merriam-Webster’s reference book editors, say, than American Heritage’s.  Do you offer any principles or guidelines for when we may safely discard grammatical rules (e.g., ending sentences with prepositions and splitting “infinitives”) that earlier generations (such as my own) were taught as gospel, but now have often come to be seen as the inventions of centuries-old grammar textbooks?
Those so-called “rules” never were legitimate! They were the inventions of Latinists who felt English (a Germanic language) should more closely resemble Latin (a Romance language). Contrary to popular opinion, the true “rules” of English are eminently reasonable (subject and verb should agree, for example). The wacko, unreasonable ones are mere superstitions.
I’m sure schools will be interested in Woe Is I Jr., perhaps as a supplement to their grammar textbooks or perhaps as the centerpiece of their grammar curriculum.  How do you think schools might use Woe Is I Jr.?
I’m not an educator myself, and I didn’t intend the book to be used as a curriculum model. But it might be a helpful supplement for teachers wishing to explain certain concepts in plain English and with entertaining examples. Otherwise, parents and kids might find it helpful to keep around the house as usage issues crop up. I hope so!

How did you find such a wonderful illustrator for Woe Is I Jr.?

My editor, Susan Kochan, found him. Thank you, Susan!

You dedicate Woe Is I Jr. to your sister, Kathy Richard.  Are there any particular associations between her and the book’s subject matter?

Well, this is a book for kids, and since my sister and I spent our childhoods together, I wanted to make the book a tribute to her and to those years.

What plans do you have for marketing Woe Is I Jr.?  I missed your appearance on Oprah for the first Woe Is I book!

I’ll be doing broadcast appearances, but more important, I hope to meet lots of kids in book signings and talks. And I hope they’ll let me know how I can make the book even better. It’s their book you know!

Posted May 11, 2007.