An “Open Book” interview with Patricia T. O’Conner in the New York Times Book Review
This week, one grammar guru writes about another, as Patricia T. O’Conner reviews Mary Norris’s “Between You & Me.” Norris has been a copy editor for more than 30 years at The New Yorker, the notoriously fastidious magazine, and O’Conner, a former copy editor at the Book Review, has written several books about language usage, including “Woe Is I.”
In an email interview, O’Conner said her favorite book on writing is “The Reader Over Your Shoulder,” by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge. “There’s no hand-holding, no coddling, no nonsense about ‘finding a voice,’ ” O’Conner said. It was first published in 1943, and O’Conner cautions readers to find early copies, since “some of the best parts are lost” in revised editions.
For the last word on grammar, she recommends “The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language,” by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum. “It’s an awesome feat of scholarship, and it’s not for sissies — this book is dense, to say the least,” she said. “But it has all of the answers and none of the superstitions.”
Asked for a favorite obscure title on the subject, O’Conner cited “a little green book called ‘Gobbledygook Has Gotta Go,’ published in 1966 by the U.S. Government Printing Office,” given to her by a friend. “The author was John O’Hayre, an employee of the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, and I hope he got a medal.”
Like Norris, O’Conner knows the hazards of writing about writing. (Norris started a recent Q. and A. on Reddit with a disclaimer: “Forgive the typos, it’s my day off.”) O’Conner said: “There are always people who will pounce and say, ‘Gotcha! You just broke your own rule!’ But my real feeling is that the world needs fewer writers and more readers.”
From the April 19, 2015, print edition of the New York Times Book Review.