September 2004

Sharon Adarlo

nonfiction

Woe is I by Patricia T. O'Conner and Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

The grammatically-challenged have recently been given a bumper crop of “how to grammar” books, most notably Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves and Patricia T. O’Conner’s equally visible book, Woe is I – so push aside your Strunk and White, you say! Not so fast. These new books are really the equivalent of appetizers -- martini breakfasts even. In summary, they serve as excellent and complimentary introductions to the exciting and heady world of grammar, and they make this critic’s little cup of syntax runneth over.

Considering the voluble and British writer, Lynne Truss, I am willing to wager that the very sight of bad grammar gives her a nasty case of the shingles -- you can tell. She seems to have an axe to grind for any grocer who dares to put an apostrophe in the wrong place. In breathless and gossipy Guardian articles, she comes off as self-effacing, smart, and yet intensely polemical -- ready to sling her harsh opinion on the declining state of literacy in the general public. And her book is no different.

Her book, a witty and yet passionate screed against the butchering of punctuation, is a literary jihadi call to arms -- “Sticklers Unite!” she writes like a battle cry. It’s the syntactical equivalent of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto. In passionate and skillful prose, she skewers the rampant misuse of apostrophes, the troublesome comma, pens an ode to her angel-dust addiction to the artful semi-colon, assesses the dash and all stops, and she writes ecstatically and reverently about all the other little squiggly marks that make our sentences fly and sing.

She dwells lovingly on the life of Aldus Manutius the Elder (1450-1515), the inventor of italics and printer of the first ever semi-colon (and for that matter, the object of Lynne Truss’s shameless crush). And there are many other history-inflected lessons on punctuation as well as general rules for proper use, and even real world implications. The location of a comma can alter the theological underpinning of a verse in the Bible. There are also standout gems that should be read again and again such as the frequent passages on how writers from Virginia Woolf to Evelyn Waugh use punctuation, but there is her chapter on semi-colons and colons to consider, “Airs and Graces,” in which Lynne Truss is at her best and most inspired -- it seems almost impossible to make semi-colons fun, and yet Truss comes up with the impossible, and the end result, so friggin’ damn good, feels like a privilege to read.

The only downside? The last chapter is a stream of consciousness fluff: a detailing of punctuation crimes in the cyber age, the blasphemous use of emoticons, and the recent sexed-up Iraq dossier thrown in for good measure. Everything was so crisp and so stinging in the rest of the book that the end game seemed a little tired, a little moldy, and not too well thought-out. It resembled more of the needless hand wringing of a housewife over a sink of dirty dishes. But the book as a whole holds up very well. It’s grand and literary in its scope -- considering the narrowness of the subject, but for a more thorough treatment of English grammar, and not just punctuation, we’ll have to turn to the next book on our list.

Patricia T. O’Conner, former New York Times Book Review editor and frequent guest on the W-NYC Leonard Lopate radio show, has a soothing and polished voice -- she dispenses grammar advice over the airwaves once a month to the curious, the bereaved, and the plain clueless in the tri-state area. She’s the Delilah of syntax except without the cheesy dedications, Bette Midler songs and sob-soaked confessionals. She teases lessons of history from an idiom, lays the smack down on syntax abuse, and basically surprises this critic to the sheer volume of people willing to jam W-NYC’s meager eight phones lines so O’Conner can solve their pressing grammar woes. Why do they keep on coming back? She’s helpful, knowledgeable and to the point.

Her book, Woe is I, is just as helpful. It’s not as fancy nor as literary as Lynne Truss’ book, but it makes up for it in the ground it covers: pronouns, plurals, possessives, verbs, words that are commonly misapplied, punctuation, tricky danglers, clichés that should be shot dead, old grammar rules that should be sent out to pasture, and even a guide on Internet/e-mail etiquette. It’s not intimidating despite the wide scope. The book is written in a clear and breezy style so you won’t get bogged down. Each chapter seems to carry a joke in its title -- a pun to tickle your funny bone and makes all the lessons go down a little easier. There are “Plurals Before Swine” and “Comma Sutra.” But aside from that, she has handy dandy boxes encapsulating little lessons and rules, and helpful notes referring you to another section in the book. It’s an extremely helpful book and full of sly, down to earth wisdom and jokes. There’s even a section on writing well that takes subtle aim at the Thomas Pynchons of the world.

“A good writer is one you can read without breaking a sweat. If you want a workout, you don’t lift a book -- you lift weights. Yet we’re brainwashed to believe that the more brilliant the writer, the tougher the going,” she writes.

Sly, very sly I say. James Joyce scholars are biting their fingernails right now.

There were also a handful of times when I wished she would dwell on some aspect a little more such as the plural endings of certain words, but the reader is simply dismissed to a dictionary. But overall, there are gems here waiting to be mined from the section on verbal abuse to the suggestion that maybe we can end our sentences with a preposition and not feel guilty and stupid in the least. The cliché and old grammar rules chapters are worthy to be read and to be remembered as well.

But the book has the look and feel of a Cliff Notes version of a heavy grammar tome, and yes, it is encyclopedic in its approach, more so than Truss’ book, and yet the stickler in me would like a little more meat, a little more detail -- the kind of stuff you would find in some boring dust-covered grammar book. The book is more like a primer -- helpful reminders for people who need to brush up on their grammar. Truss’ book is more of a polemic on a narrow subject. But in the end, both books are fun and helpful and hopefully whet your appetite for their weightier and more somber cousins.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss
Gotham Books
ISBN: 1592400876
240 Pages

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Woe is I by Patricia T. O’Conner
Riverhead Books
ISBN: 1573222526
240 Pages