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July 31, 2003 - Patricia O'Conner: 'Woe Is I' - 2003-08-01

Broadcast on COAST TO COAST: July 31, 2003

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER -- we talk with grammarian Patricia O'Conner. She's out with a second edition of "Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English." The book first came out in 1996, and was a bestseller.

RS: It's easy to understand why some people fear grammar, what with endless debates over little points, like the correct use of the word "hopefully." Should we use it only as a simple adverb, as in "She looked at her lottery ticket hopefully" -- meaning "with hope"?

AA: Or should we use it as a sentence adverb? That means it modifies the whole sentence: "Hopefully I'll win the lottery" -- meaning, "I hope."

RS: Pat O'Conner took stock of how American English has changed in common usage over the past seven years. It forced her to reconsider some of her strongly held beliefs -- beliefs held just as strongly, in some cases, by her readers.

O'CONNER: "I have to say that a couple of months ago I got one of those heart-rending, very touching letters from a reader of the original 'Woe Is I' telling me how grateful she was about my position on the word hopefully. And in the first edition I was more of a purist, and I felt that we shouldn't be using it as a sentence adverb. And she was so grateful to me for holding the fort on this very important issue. Of course, I had just finished writing the second edition of 'Woe Is I' where I change my mind on hopefully. And so I had to write her an abject letter of not only apology but self-justification."

AA: "Now where do you stand today, seven years after your original edition, on using 'they' as a pronoun to modify a singular subject, as in 'Anyone ... ' Think of an example."

O'CONNER: "Anyone who gets in has to show their ticket."

AA: "How do you feel about that?"

O'CONNER: "Well, I did a lot of soul-searching, I have to tell you, because -- believe it or not -- there are even newspapers around the country that have changed their style on that, and they're allowing the plurals 'they,' 'them' and 'their' to refer back to a non-specific, generic individual."

AA: "To be gender-neutral."

O'CONNER: "Yeah."

AA: "But you're still against that."

O'CONNER: "I'm still against it, and the reason is -- I can see there is a genuine gap in English and we do need a gender-neutral singular. We don't have one except for 'it.' The reason I didn't shift on that one is I think that's one of those elemental rules of grammar dealing with subject-verb agreement, and you can avoid it completely. 'Did anyone lose an umbrella?' instead of 'did anyone lose their umbrella?' 'If anyone calls, I'm out,' rather than 'if anyone calls, tell them I'm out.'"

RS: "What was the hardest decision for you to make in this new, revised edition?"

O'CONNER: "I think the one about they, them and their. It's just so universal. I do it myself."

AA: "And yet we're supposed to follow what you say, not what you do? [Laughter]"

O'CONNER: "I know, I know -- in writing. I think you can forgive a lot in conversation, don't you?"

RS: "It's a more informal way of communicating, conversation."

O'CONNER: "Right."

AA: "Anyone can decide for themselves how they feel about it. [Laughter]"

O'CONNER: "You could say 'people can decide for themselves."

AA: "Now that's true."

RS: Pat O'Conner's book "Woe Is I" now includes a chapter on language in the age of e-mail. She says people are writing more than ever. But that doesn't mean they're writing well.

O'CONNER: "The stuff you read on the Internet and in your e-mail in-basket often is pretty disorganized, it's ungrammatical, it's badly punctuated, it's all upper-case, or it's all lower-case -- just because people don't realize that this is writing. It's not just another form of the telephone. It takes only a few seconds to reread your e-mail, but you'll probably find a little grammar mistake, a spelling mistake, a punctuation mistake, a couple of sentences that were run together that would be better if they were separated. Any number of little things like that."

AA: "Got to ask you the last question, will your third edition be called "Woe Is Me" [laughter] based on common usage?"

O'CONNER: "I don't think so. [Laughter]"

RS: Pat O'Conner is author of "Woe Is I: A Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English." And that's Wordmaster for this week.

AA: Our e-mail address is, and our programs are on the Web at With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.