The Prompter Room

For Monday, December 21, 2015:


“Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned.  All I know about grammar is its power.”

Joan Didion (Joan Didion: Essays and Conversations)

We all know the adage that we have to know the rules in order to break them, but we should also keep in mind that we have to be careful when we do so.  I like Didion’s metaphor about playing by ear, because that’s how I operate sometimes.  I was in school to learn the rules, and I have retained many of them, but there are times – especially when I have my editor’s hat on – when I need to refer to others who know more than I do.

One of the sources I consult is Patricia T. O’Conner’s Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English (NY: Riverhead Books, 2003).  Unlike the thick, heavy tome I was raised on in school – Warriner’s – this paperback is easy to hold and easy to navigate.

It’s also far from dry.  O’Conner’s style is breezy and conversational, sometimes funny.  No sentences are diagrammed in this book – yay! – yet she explains most rules in a way that makes far more sense to me.  She even has a chapter called ‘Let Bygone Rules Be Gone.’

The author writes that this is “a survival guide for intelligent people … Most of us don’t know a gerund from a gerbil and don’t care, but we’d like to speak and write as though we did.”  There are one or two things I disagree with her on – though I’d need to read the book again to find them – but, as she says about colons in her chapter on punctuation, ‘Comma Sutra,’ some things are “a matter of taste, and opinions differ.  Whatever your choice, be consistent.”  That I agree with.

Woe is I is today’s answer to grammar.  It’s fun – I read it as bedtime reading when the book was given to me as a gift! – and it’s enlightening.  I recommend this for anyone who writes, especially if you can’t play the rules by ear.


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