Guide teaches about language in plain English

Guide teaches about language in plain English By Bob Karolevitz One of my favorite gifts is a paperback book titled Woe Is I.

Its subtitle is: "The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English."

Not everyone would enjoy or appreciate the small volume by Patricia T. O'Connor, but those of us who work in the vineyard of words find it fun, easy reading and professionally helpful.

Every now and then I like to end a sentence with a preposition, split an infinitive or break other so-called rules of grammar insisted upon by the purists. O'Connor says it's okay, because English � unlike Latin � is a living language always subject to change.

Regarding one of those old rules, I've always liked the story attributed to Winston Churchill when he was writing his memoirs for an American publisher. Occasionally he would end a sentence with a preposition, which some stickler would always change in the galley proofs.

After it had happened several times, Churchill fired a stinging note to the mangler of his prose, saying: "That's the kind of editing up with which I shall not put!"

Woe Is I tells you when to use lie or lay, sit or set, I or me and who or whom. It becomes obvious why Ernest Hemingway didn't title his book For Who the Bells Tolls.

There's a separate section on plurals, too. More than one Jones are Joneses, not the Jones' as some ungrammatical sign-makers seem to insist. Dan Quail would have learned how to spell potatoes if he'd read this chapter.

However, O'Connor missed a bet when she didn't use the illustration of the zoo-keeper who was ordering a couple specimens from India.

"Please send me two mongooses," he wrote. It didn't sound right to him, so he changed it to read: "Please send me two mongeese." That didn't satisfy him either, so he penned: "Please send me a mongoose. And, oh, by the way, please send me another."

The author did use the following little verse, though: In the ocean, wriggling by, are octopuses, no octopi.

The best chapter is the one on cliches and mixed metaphors. The author lists a lot of overworked phrases which she says are "dead as a doornail."

"Bored to tears," "a can of worms," "thick as thieves" (have you every seen a thick thief?), "cool as a cucumber," "head over heels," "blessing in disguise" and "bone of contention" are � if you'll pardon the expression � ready for the "ash heap." O'Connor argues that we should put a lid on "Pandora's box," and "nipped in the bud" should be nipped.

On the other hand, she likes lines like Tallulah Bankhead's description of herself: "Pure as the driven slush." But she insists that writers who overuse "back to the drawing board" should go back to Roger's Thesaurus.

Mixed metaphors like "the silver lining at the end of the tunnel" and "don't count your chickens till the cows come home" should be reserved for Yogi Berra.

Frankly, if I didn't learn something from Woe Is I, then woe is me!

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