Patricia T. O’Conner •
Patricia T. O’Conner, who shares her extensive knowledge of English usage at Grammarphobia.com, kindly agreed to answer our nosy questions. Click here to read a review of Woe Is I, her first book.
Unofficial Book Reviewer: Tell us how Woe Is I came to be written.
Patricia T. O’Conner: In the fall of 1994, Grossett/Putnam asked me if I’d be interested in writing a lighthearted book on English grammar. Back then this was a radical idea.
I agreed, with the stipulation that I wanted to write the book in plain English, avoiding the technical language that turns so many people off—subordinating conjunctions, coordinate modifiers, dependent clauses.
I soon learned that it’s not so easy to put complicated ideas into plain and simple words. For one thing, you have to understand the concepts—the deep grammar—pretty thoroughly before you can even begin. When you’re writing very simply, any slight misconceptions are greatly magnified. So that turned out to be an enormous challenge.
To everyone’s surprise, the book seemed to strike a chord with the public. Woe Is I is now in its third edition and has sold about half a million copies.
UBR: Why is grammar important?
PTO: How we use language determines how we get our message across. To some extent, it defines who and what we are. In any given situation, people who can communicate well will always do better than those who can’t (except maybe in weight lifting or dance contests).
UBR: If you were limited to giving a single piece of advice about correct English, what would it be?
PTO: Good readers tend to be good writers; they have a better chance of developing an ear for language. So I’d say read a lot—and I do mean a LOT—all kinds of fiction and nonfiction. And don’t neglect the writers of the past; they have much to teach us.
UBR: Do you use an e-reader?
PTO: Yes, I have a Kindle Paperwhite. Digitized libraries have made so many rare and obscure books accessible to the average reader. I also read and love real, physical books, and I hope they’ll be around forever.
UBR: What do you enjoy most about editing?
PTO: I like polishing and making things clearer. To me, good writing is clear writing. And the first draft will never do! Anyone who says otherwise—unless he’s Anthony Trollope—is kidding himself.
More books by Patricia T. O’Conner: