Books About Language

12th February 2002

We of the Self-Appointed Grammar Police are often asked what books about language are useful, definitive or at least entertaining. Here is a selection of our recommendations:

1. Officer Taylor's Books
2. Officer MacDonald's Books
        2.1. Dictionaries
        2.2. Style, Grammar, Punctuation, and Usage References
        2.3. Style Guides
        2.4. Web Sites
        2.5. Miscellaneous

1. Officer Taylor's Books

I have Strunk & White's classic The Elements of Style, of course. It is very old, but simply definitive. (Incidentally, search for elements of style on Amazon some time, and see how many books are named after Strunk & White's masterpiece. Amazing.)
 -  [amazon.com] [amazon.co.uk]

I very much like Bill Bryson's Troublesome Words, previously known as The Dictionary of Troublesome Words. I bought a copy for my wife as a present one Christmas, but I've been through it closely twice since then and she's hardly glanced at it :-)
 -  [amazon.com] [amazon.co.uk]

I also enjoy Bryson's history-of-language books Mother Tongue (on English) and Made in America (on U.S. English) which are not really style guides, but make fascinating reading.
 -  Mother Tongue at [amazon.com] [amazon.co.uk]
 -  Made in America at [amazon.com] [amazon.co.uk]

Among our more recent acquisions is Bill Walsh's Lapsing into a Comma, which again I very much enjoyed, as much because of his bigoted style as the actual content. (His web site at www.theslot.com was the single biggest inspiration for the SAGP site.)
 -  [amazon.com] [amazon.co.uk]

Finally, I have Keith Waterhouse's wonderful little book on newspaper style, which I stumbled across in a second-hand shop and bought, but have never seen, or even seen mentioned, anywhere else. A real shame. Can't remember the title offhand, sorry. I also recommend Waterhouse's The Theory and Practice of Lunch, which is nothing whatsoever to do with language, but a delight anyway.

2. Officer MacDonald's Books

First, a few cautions:

  1. Owing to a serious oversight, God did not hand down a definitive work on these matters. That being the case, every single one of the sources cited here contains errors. Every one. Moreover, in some areas experts disagree. So don't bet the farm on anything of this nature, ever. Even if you get your authority from me.

  2. If your editor tells you to change something, and said editor is wrong and you are right, don't argue unless the change will alter the meaning of what you write. A muted suggestion is all right, but you will lose any serious argument, because the editor is the boss. House style books vary; some of them are ludicrous, but the world is like that.

  3. If in the process of critiquing someone's work you find what appears to be an error, don't call the cops right away. Sometimes writers violate the rules on purpose, and sometimes that's a good thing to do. Sometimes they are using UK style, and they are right.

  4. These recommendations are exclusively for users of American English, which is very different from British English. There's a note on British English at the end.

Now to the books. All prices mentioned are list; big discounts are often available. All opinions expressed are correct.

2.1. Dictionaries

You need to know that dictionaries are compiled by lexicographers, not usage experts. The fact that a word is ``in the dictionary'' doesn't mean you should use it; that just means some people, including people you wouldn't like, have used the word somewhere at some time.

Any dictionary is better than no dictionary, but good dictionaries will tell you at least that a word is ``vulgar,'' or ``colloquial,'' or otherwise non-standard, if such is the case.

The best dictionary for everyday use currently available is The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.; Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 2000). It's best because it contains hundreds of excellent ``usage notes,'' cautionary advice compiled by a panel of writers and linguists. It's also best because even though it's big, it can be picked up by the average person; this will develop your upper body muscles. ($60.) There's a $7 paperback; I suspect it's abridged in some way.
 -  [amazon.com] [amazon.co.uk]

If you are looking for a really obscure word, your best bet among American dictionaries is Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (1993 ed.; Merriam-Webster, 1998). Use it at the library, where they have space and a nice book stand to set it on. ($119.)

For the absolute biggest, we borrow from our English friends: Oxford English Dictionary (With additions; OUP, 1997). Many volumes; another library visit, or pay a large annual fee and use it on the Web. Not worth the money, in my opinion, unless it's a very long way to the library.

These and several other dictionaries are either on the Web or available in CD-ROM; most of them are abridged in those formats, or are older editions. There's no substitute for the real thing. Check before you buy. Do a Web search for specialized dictionaries of everything under the sun, from architecture to zoology.

2.2. Style, Grammar, Punctuation, and Usage References

Most people who try to write are better than average at all these things, but we all need someplace to go to check things or refresh our memories.

The best American usage book is Bryan A. Garner, A Dictionary of Modern American Usage (NY: Oxford, 1998). ($38.) It is mildly conservative, but not as conservative as Strunk & White (below). One reason it's best is that it's new - many older usage books are around, but they age fast.
 -  [amazon.com] [amazon.co.uk]

The most popular grammar and usage book is Wm. Strunk & E.B. White, The Elements of Style (4th.ed.: Allyn and Bacon, 2000). It's super-conservative; you won't go wrong 98 percent of the time if you follow it, but it's not quite as good as people say. For one thing, it's quite limited; for another, the revisions are cursory, so it verges on obsolescence. For yet another, the style recommendations are for essays or journalism, not fiction. But it's cheap ($7.), and it's pocket size. The one on the Web is the 1918 edition; don't use it.

2.3. Style Guides

If you're writing scholarly papers, or certain kinds of non-fiction, you'll need one of these. The standard guide for many publishers is the Chicago Manual of Style (14th ed.; U. of Chicago, 1993). ($32.) A good one is Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations (U. of Chicago, 1996). ($14.) Another standard is the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (5th ed.; 1999). ($15 paperback.) Many disciplines have their own style guides.

2.4. Web Sites

The best grammar site on the Web by a country mile is the one originally set up by Charles Darling: www.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar - It's comprehensive, and usually correct. Generally it follows Strunk & White, but it has more and better examples, and discusses many things not in S&W.

Jack Lynch's Guide to Grammar and Style: andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Writing - The second best on the Web. A beautiful example of lousy site design.

The Blue Book of Grammar and Usage: www.grammarbook.com - Quite elementary, but not bad.

Common Errors in English: www.wsu.edu/~brians/errors - Good discussions of just what it says.

Tina Blue's Grammar and Usage for the Non-Expert: www.grammartips.homestead.com/index.html - Not comprehensive, but very sensible. [Also, her page on the subject Who Am I to Tell You How to Write Correctly? contains a nice reference to ``the tyranny of the self-appointed grammar police.'' Thanks for the plug - Ed.]

Many more sites exist, but these are the best.

If you want feisty and opinionated sites, try:

Mother Grammatica: silvablu.skeeter63.org/HMG/00-Introduction.htm

Bill Walsh's Guide for Copy Editors: www.theslot.com

And of course, SAGP: The Self-Appointed Grammar Police! sagp.miketaylor.org.uk The punishments are a little on the medieval side, but ``extremism in the defense of grammar is no vice,'' etc.

2.5. Miscellaneous

Just a little note for logophiles. If you qualify, get a copy of H.W. Fowler's Modern English Usage (Oxford: 1937 or later). It's far and away the most fascinating of all - you can amuse yourself for hours just reading it. Unfortunately, it's too old to be authoritative, but you'll learn things from it. This is not the edition revised by Burchfield, which most people say is simply not Fowler's. Get the real thing - it's still in print.

Finally, a note on UK style. If there is a UK style guide that's even halfway tolerable, I don't know what it is. I'm still using G.V. Carey's Mind the Stop (Penguin, 1958), but it's out of print and out of date. Please, somebody, tell me what you're using today. And put up a UK Style web site - we need it.

Feedback to <mike@indexdata.com> is welcome!