“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.

Can kids love grammar?

[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.

Photo of Woe Is I Jr.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.


Intimidation-free grammar

You took driver’s ed to learn how do drive a car; you didn’t have to take a course in automobile mechanics to get your license. Am I right?

So how about English grammar? They tried to teach me about adverb clauses, past participles, and indefinite pronouns. Just so I could write, I guess. But I never got the connection, and I graduated high school without a clear notion of what any of these grammatical terms mean.

Now I’m teaching ninth grade English, and I’ve just read Patricia T. O’Conner’s little book,Woe Is I: the Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. Its humor and logic are a bit beyond most of my students, but its approach is right. Why not just explain the whole thing? Why not give an overview to demonstrate that this grammar thing is manageable, and to demonstrate grammar’s connection with writing and talking? We can always go back and learn about the subjunctive when we’re in that mood.

Ms. O’Connor’s material is organized well. She gives a general rule and follows it up with examples– humorous examples, often involving sitcom and cartoon heroes from years past. The index works. She stuffs the grammatical terms into the glossary where you can find them if you want to. The chapter headings make sense, and the book is well cross-referenced. She repeats herself when necessary to carry a chapter off, and there is no harm in that.

She dedicates a chapter debunking grammar myths (e.g., don’t end a sentence with a preposition; don’t split an infinitive). The myths either were never true or were true only long ago. Her relativistic leanings seem to match those at Merriam-Webster, whose Dictionary of English Usage takes an historical approach to debunk similar myths. For instance, and happily for the preceding sentence, the Dictionary of English Usage traces the rule, “Don’t use whose to refer to an inanimate object” to a footnote in a seventeenth-century grammar book. In short order, the footnote became gospel and overturned at least three centuries of precedent, including lines by Shakespeare, Milton, and Pope. Ms. O’Conner also takes issue with this whose rule.

[book cover]The most fun chapter is titled, “Verbal Abuse: Words on the Endangered List.” This past Christmas, my family and I made a game of the specific words in this chapter that Ms. O’Conner says people either misuse or confuse with other words frequently. (E.g., “When would you use anxious in writing, and when would you use eager?” “What are the differences among eminent, imminent, and immanent?”)

Ms. O’Conner also has a helpful chapter on common stylistic writing errors and a chapter on email, which won’t tell you much new, but will at least give you written ammunition in your arguments for better-written email.

Now, if Ms. O’Conner would write a book like this for ninth graders, I will beg my school to purchase them.