The Editor is In: 9 Questions With Grammar Guru Patricia T. O’Conner

Patricia T. O'Conner and her husband Stewart Kellerman

Patricia T. O'Conner and her husband Stewart Kellerman

By Daniel Ford

I’ve always believed that to be a good writer, one needs a great editor.

I don’t understand writers who get pissy about their stuff being edited. Writing is personal, but if you want to hack it as a writer, you need to embrace the samurai sword of a usually much wiser and objective wordsmith. I consider my first editor to be my college professor, the late Kalev Pehme, who required every one in his copy editing class read a grammar book of our choice. Most of the class opted for The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, but I did some research and ended up choosing Patricia T. O’Conner’s Woe is I. That’s really when I found out I knew nothing about grammar.

But O’Conner’s book patiently led me down the right path and I can now realize when I’m making dopey grammatical mistakes. I can also admonish others for using “due to” and “hopefully” incorrectly (although socially acceptable) and have the facts to back it up.

I was lucky enough to talk to O’Conner recently and get her thoughts on writing and editing, her career at The New York Time Book Review, and what it’s like being married to another editor.

Daniel Ford: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Was it from birth, or was it something you discovered over time?

Patricia T. O’Conner: My original ambition, at age 9 or so, was to be a cowgirl—Annie Oakley was my inspiration. But practical considerations intervened. When I first realized I had to actually earn a living, writing seemed the least painless option. Little did I realize just how difficult it is to write.

DF: As someone who studied journalism in college I have to ask, what was the graduate journalism department at the University of Minnesota like? What were some of the things you covered while you studied urban journalism?

POC: This is a long time ago—the early 1970s. And back then, being in a graduate journalism program was absolutely thrilling. Between classes, we gathered in the student lounge to watch the Watergate hearings. Newspaper reporting seemed the most glamorous, heroic pursuit in the world back then. We were pretty full of ourselves!

What an exhilarating time that was for a young aspiring journalist. This spring marks the 40th anniversary of those nationally televised Senate hearings. People were throwing around terms like “dirty tricks,” “deep throat,” “inoperative,” “smoking gun,” “follow the money,” “the plumbers.” Journalism has never been the same.

In the program I was in, we covered the same things the Minneapolis Star covered—police, courts, legislature. We went out on assignment (when we weren’t busy watching the news on television!), then returned to the journalism building to file our stories on deadline. It was hard work, but not nearly as hard as being a working reporter later.

DF: We’re big fans of The New York Times Book Review here at Writer’s Bone. What was your experience as an editor for that publication like and what was the most memorable book review that crossed your desk?

POC: Working at the Book Review was like no other job in the world. I was there for 11 years, and I learned more in those 11 years than at any other time in my life. There were so many brilliant—and funny!—people crammed into those little offices on the eighth floor of the old Times building on West 43rd Street.

Everybody who was anybody wrote for the Book Review, all the best minds of their time. Even so, their prose often needed tweaking! As a copy editor there, I tried to make sure the writing was as elegant and fluid and accurate as it could be. A review had to make sense and it had to be fair—that is, everything said of the book and the author had to be true. Sometimes the authors complained about how they were reviewed—more than once, Norman Mailer came up to the office to yell and pound on somebody’s desk. So everything said in a review or essay had to be defensible.

I can’t pick a “favorite” review, but one of the best I can recall was a piece Eudora Welty wrote in 1981 about a collection of stories by Elizabeth Bowen. Flawless writing on the subject of flawless writing! I’ve looked up the review, and here’s one of Welty’s sentences: “As it ends the story can be seen to be perfect, and the perfection lies in the telling—the delicacy, the humor, above all the understanding that has enveloped but never intruded upon it, never once pricked the lovely, free-floating balloon.”

Of course, there was bad writing on the Book Review as well—stuff that landed with a thud. But the wonderful writing more than made up for it. You can see why I loved my job there. I also got to write things myself. I wrote reviews and essays.

DF: I remember reading Woe Is I for the first time in college and being blown away by all the things I didn’t know or was doing wrong all my life. I would go to parties with the book and explain all the grammatical things I was learning. What made you decide to start writing books about grammar, and do you think grammar has gotten better or worse since you first published it?

POC: One day in 1994 I got a call at my desk at the Book Review. Jane Isay, who was then the publisher at Grosset-Putnam, asked me if I’d be interested in writing a light-hearted grammar book. At the time, this was a contradiction in terms!

I said yes, and started to compile lists of all the grammar and usage problems I’d run into during my years as an editor at the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (Iowa), the Des Moines RegisterThe Wall Street Journal, andThe New York Times. There was a lot of material to work with. For instance, even some senior editors at the Book Review couldn’t get their minds around the concept of the dangling modifier, as in “walking through the woods, a mountain sprang into view.”

So I collected all these problems and set about to explain them in the simplest possible terms. My idea was to avoid the grammatical terminology as much as possible, and to make the examples amusing.

DF: In your experience and research, what’s the biggest grammatical mistake that people make? What’s the most obscure piece of grammatical trivia I can use at the next party I attend?

POC: Pronouns seem to account for the bulk of the grammatical mistakes. Then verb conjugations—people get tenses wrong. The most common problem I notice is the tendency to use “X and I” for every purpose, even when “X and me” is appropriate.

But people make even the most obvious mistakes, using object pronouns like “me” and “him” as subjects. Most notorious example: I was once invited to appear before a large group of school teachers and administrators in suburban New Jersey. A high school principal and one of his colleagues approached me beforehand to apologize because, as the principal said, “Him and me will have to leave early.” This is a true story. My husband, who was standing next to me, is a witness!

DF: I had a professor in college spend a whole class on why email was spelled “e-mail” and not the way it is now. Language is constantly evolving in the digital age, so how does grammar keep up with it? Why are some rules okay to change, while others need to stay the same?

POC: Historically, hyphenated constructions tend to lose their hyphens. This isn’t a grammatical issue, it’s one of style and usage. And the “rules” of style and usage change much more readily than grammar—the bedrock of the language. That’s why there are three different editions of Woe Is I—the book tries to stay ahead of the curve on style and usage. In fact, I have a file of material to use in case I’m ever allowed to do a fourth edition.

DF: We normally ask writers what their process is like, but I’m more interested in finding out what your editing process is like. Do you need absolute quiet, or do you prefer to listen to music while you edit?

POC: The quieter the better. No music. I am a musical person, and I get distracted by what the musician is doing.

DF: You manage a website and have written several books with your husband Stewart Kellerman, who is also a journalist and editor. How have words shaped your relationship and who would you say is the better editor?

POC: It’s sometimes a challenge to keep my cool as Stewart tells me something I’ve written is gibberish. This is a real test of a marriage (we’ve been married for 26 years). Even as I write this (under duress), he’s editing one of my blog items and tearing it to pieces. He’s probably the better editor—as I’m sure he would tell you.

DF: Name one random fact about yourself.

POC: I’m dieting (have lost 11 pounds in the last two months) so I’m cranky right now. As you can perhaps tell from my last answer!

To learn more about Patricia T. O'Conner, check out her official website or follow her on Twitter  @grammarphobia.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive