Woe is I: A Grammarphobe's Guide

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Puritanboard Clerk
O’Connor, Patricia T. Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996.

Not necessarily a handbook, since it doesn’t always discuss the reasoning behind the rules. Still, this is a good “workshop” on how to avoid grammatical faux pais (pl?).


That or Which?

“A which clause goes inside commas. A that clause doesn’t” (O’Connor 3).
Do I use “who or that?”

“A person can be either a who or a that. A thing, on the other hand, is always a that” (6).

More than Meets the I

Should I say “more than I” or “more than me?” If I say she loves spaghetti more than I, it means “more than I do.” If I say more than me, it means she loves it more than she loves me (12).

What’s What?

Should I say “Lou sees what appears to be ghosts” or “Lou sees what appear to be ghosts?” The pronoun what is either singular or plural. In this case, it refers to ghosts, so it would take a plural verb.

Key Word Tips

1) “Between” is followed by a plural noun and “from” by a singular (31).

2) If an “if” statement is contrary to fact, use “were,” not “was.”

3) Don’t add “ize” to a verb if you want sharp writing (62).

4) Use “that” in a sentence if there is a time element or the point of the sentence comes late (69).

5) We “diagnose” diseases, not patients (82).

6) A dilemma involves two options, not simply a hard choice (83).

7) Hopefully, you don’t start a sentence with hopefully. It means “in a hopeful manner.”

8) “Via means “by way of,” not “by means of.”

9) “Alternate” means one after another. “Alternative means one instead of another” (89).

10) Use “badly” when describing an activity. Use “bad” on a passive state (91).

11) We lend money. People take out a loan. We do not loan money.

12) When you write a good sentence, put the doer closer to what is being done.


Puritan Board Junior
Sounds like I might like/need this book. I like the example of the difference between smelling well (having a keen nose) and smelling good (taking a bath weekly and using cologne).

Seems to me that most people just learn what sounds "right" by listening to their parents. I still cannot get lay/lie correct on the first try. But it pleases me to hear my kindergartener use the subjective correctly. I didn't really learn grammar until I learned Spanish.

Jack K

Puritan Board Doctor
Some of those examples reflect a purist's approach, and even then, not one every purist will agree on. Except in the most formal writing, perhaps, exceptions may be granted: a which clause is not always set off with commas, hopefully may mean "it is hoped that" (and is less clunky), and alternate is used interchangeably with alternative in American usage.
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