Tuesday, June 26, 2007

From Patricia T. O'Conner's Woe is I (Commonplace Book)

"English is a glorious invention, one that gives us endless possibilities for expressing ourselves. Grammar is there to help, to clear up ambiguities and prevent misunderstandings. Any "rule" of grammar that gets in the way or doesn't make sense or creates problems instead of solving them probably isn't a rule at all. And, as this book's whimsical title hints, it's even possible to be too correct. While "Woe is I" may appear technically correct (and that's a matter of opinion), the expression "Woe is me" has been good English for generations. Only a pompous twit -- or an author trying to make a point -- would use "I" instead of "me" here."

[I bought this book because I saw myself in the Garrison Keillor blurb on the cover: "You forget so much about English as you go along being profound in it, like who a gerund is and where adverbs go, until one day you stand up to receive your honorary LL.D. and children snicker at your grammatical errors. Woe is I can save you from that."]

2 comments:

neilshyminsky said...

Your recreation of the blurb on the back reminds me of when I accepted my first teaching job at a private tutoring academy for high schoolers, which they and I thought I was perfectly qualified for because of my MA in English. As I can now amusedly tell anyone, I could 'feel' when something was grammatically incorrect and I could write a good sentence for them, but I couldn't possibly explain why the former was wrong or parse the details that made the latter so much better. And so I found myself offering explanations like "because that reads better" or "because it's less confusing", as I had so fully internalized the rules that I had no other way of explaining myself. (Needless to say, I quickly moved on to other work.)

Jason Powell said...

I agree 100% with the point of the quote. I find myself banging my head against a wall (figuratively) in my job as a copy editor because so often comprehensibility ends up taking a back-seat to goofy "rules."

That said, "Woe is me" strikes me as a weird specific example. True, only a "pompous twit" would say "Woe is I," but wouldn't you have to be fairly pompous to say "Woe is me" with any kind of serious intent as well?

In this day and age, who would ever exclaim "Woe is me!" and mean it un-ironically?

Still, again, I agree with the spirit of the argument.