The Oxford New Essential Dictionary
Oxford University Press
When I taught college creative writing courses, among the surprising things I learned was just how few students owned a dictionary. While it’s true that a word’s definition can be accessed on the Internet with little effort, that online dictionary may fail to provide other essential information. Knowing when the word entered the English language and the language whence it came is crucial. For a writer faced with choosing between two similar words, a good dictionary provides a word’s nuances, which strengthens effective writing.
Chockful of advice, insider wisdom, and fun facts, this book will prove to be invaluable to everyone who wants to shore up their writing skills, mandatory for people who spend their time editing and shaping other people’s prose, and—perhaps best of all—an utter treat for anyone who simply revels in language.
Woe Is I
Patricia T. O'Conner
Patricia O’Conner was a former editor at the New York Times, and has had years of practical experience correcting those common mistakes that plague many writers, even those who have been writing for a long time. She explains the “rules” in a welcoming tone, perfect for anyone who is embarrassed by their not-so-perfect understanding of punctuation, syntax, and choosing the correct form of “its” to use. She clues readers in to how some of those “rules” were just someone’s personal preferences: not rules that anyone else has to follow. Her explanation of when to use “which” and when to use “that” permanently solved that problem for me, and even made it possible for me to explain to other people. O’Conner even includes a list of those words that are often mistaken for one another — prophecy/prophesy, all together/altogether, or allude/elude/delude — for example. This is a perfect guide to include in any college freshman’s back-to-campus suitcase.
Eats, Shoots & Leaves
Lynne Truss is not for everyone. She is a self-identified “grammar stickler,” and she is deeply troubled by those who don’t know the difference between a serial comma and the Kama Sutra. Truss may remind you of that one English teacher back in high school who intimidated you, but when you look back, you realize you learned more in their class than in any others. But for those who struggle with punctuation, Truss does a terrific job of demonstrating how a misplaced comma or errant semi-colon can change the entire meaning of a sentence. For the community of sticklers out there, Truss has been venerated as a warrior who will fight to the death to preserve proper punctuation.
You Are What You Speak
Robert Lane Greene
Anyone who has ever watched British television programs is aware of how a British person’s accent can identify where they are from. What Americans may not be aware of is that those accents also connote class. The upper-class British accent with its clipped enunciation and draining away of geographical markers identifies members of the aristocracy to one another, and distinguishes itself from the Scouser accent of a Liverpudlian or the Cockney accent of East London. What Americans may also not be aware of is how the various American accents accomplish a similar marking. In Greene’s fascinating study of grammar, syntax, accents, and word choices, he demonstrates how the language we speak defines who we are to strangers. How people make judgments based solely on a voice on the telephone has been explored in recent films and documentaries. For those who wish to do further research, You Are What You Speak is a great place to begin to understand.
Several Short Sentences About Writing
Klinkenborg’s writing manual is for anyone who wants to write creatively, or who wants to find a method for communicating with others in more meaningful ways. Klinkenborg brings the writing of English down to its basic unit: the sentence. Rather than trying to write a book, a chapter, or even a paragraph as a writer’s goal, Klinkenborg insists that all good writing stems from writing good sentences. What he advises may surprise readers who think that literary fiction comprises long, elaborate sentences filled with complex words. Instead, Klinkenborg advocates for simple sentences. The sentence comes before genre, so learning to write great sentences is the skill necessary for all written language. Once the building bricks are shaped and baked, they can then be assembled to create all manners of structure. Do not be surprised to feel some resistance at first to Klinkenborg’s advice as it will feel counter to previous lessons. But there is a Zen-like level of concentration that goes into focusing solely on the one sentence before you. Adopting Klinkenborg’s methods may change your entire approach to writing.
The Sense of Style
Steven Pinker brings his formidable intellect to the issues of writing correct English in this philosophical and scientific tome. In addition to discussions of usage and grammar, Pinker asserts that bad writing can actually kill people. To demonstrate this rather dramatic point, he examines the wording of warning notices that accompany certain household appliances. He shows how a failure to speak directly about the dangers of, for example, carbon monoxide threatens for users of portable heaters. Pinker wants readers to be aware of the various ways that the English language can be engineered to “bamboozle” consumers and citizens. And he shows how a knowledge of the structure of sentences, and how those structures might be manipulated by charlatans, is a necessary way for people to protect themselves. In an era where we witness the (s)mocking of linguistic norms on a daily basis, Pinker’s examination of language feels especially necessary.
Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies
A playful guide for those who are afraid to crack open books written by grammar sticklers, Grammar Snobs are Great Big Meanies offers short chapters that focus on specific issues in constructing sentences. With chapter titles like “Copulative Conjunctions: Hot Stuff for the Truly Desperate,” and “Is that a Dangler in your Memo or Are You Just Glad to See Me?” those looking to have fun while they conquer their fears are in for a treat. Casagrande illustrates each of these language problem areas with examples from her own life, or by referring to cultural discussions that erupt over whether those who fail to use Oxford commas are responsible for all of the ills of the world. (I have an opinion on this matter that I will keep to myself.) This is a great book for understanding why some people get so worked up over grammar.
Venolia states his basic premise about why anyone needs a writer’s manual. It is to “improve the odds of being understood and thus of communicating what you want to communicate.” It’s a great reminder of why, for all of its anomalies and weirdnesses, grammar, punctuation, and spelling are so important. It’s because we all want to be understood by other people. With that idea animating the book, Venolia provides well-organized, clearly explained and illustrated guidelines for writing. And he provides an index in the back for those who need to find an immediate answer to such pressing questions as “what on earth is a restrictive clause?” And “where do I put punctuation with quotation marks?” (The punctuation/question mark dilemma changes depending on whether you’re writing British English or American English. It’s enough to make you stop using quotation marks altogether.) Venolia updates the book regularly in order to keep up with the changes wrought by social media and the internet.
Word by Word
Ever wondered who defines the words you look up in the dictionary? In this fascinating memoir, Kory Stamper offers both a memoir of her time working on the Merriam-Webster dictionaries and a cultural history of the standardization of the English language. Unlike the sticklers, who Stamper writes about in some detail, she argues that the entire notion of a “standard” English language didn’t enter history until the Fifteenth Century. And ever since, English has been changing, sometimes so quickly that even the gatekeepers cannot keep up. Stamper points to the long-ago decision to base English grammar on a combination of Greek and Latin grammars, neither of which was a perfect fit, for the faulty logic behind some of the most difficult grammar rules. Her explanation of why “it’s and its” do not make any sense will provide comfort to those who still struggle. Stamper is a great read, especially for those whose interest in English extends beyond the basics.
Letters to a Young Writer
In the Twentieth Century, R.M. Rilke struck up a correspondence with a young poet. Those ten letters formed the basis for a short book that offers not only sage writing advice, but also lessons for a lifetime. Colum McCann begins his book of advice by cautioning readers that he “knows nothing” about how to make anyone a better writer. That process is individual and can be affected by temperament and circumstances beyond the writer’s control. What he can offer, however, are the results of his experiences. The lessons that have worked in his writing workshops, the advice received from his mentors, the discoveries made through mistakes, the epiphanies that only arrive after gallons of coffee and not enough sleep. McCann’s advice is a mixture of wisdom and compassion for the person who aches to write, but it also has moments of a sort of “reality check” that help to put the whole enterprise of “wanting to be a writer” into proper perspective. This is a lovely book to give as a gift or to read for one’s own pleasure.
The Deluxe Transitive Vampire
Karen Elizabeth Gordon
Have you been looking for a gift for the lover of all things Goth who also likes to write? In this remarkable guide to the English language, Gordon animates a vampire and uses the sentences that make up his story to illustrate concepts such as parts of speech, phrases, clauses, and those soul-sucking run-on sentences that skewer even the most robust prose. “This is a dangerous game I’m playing,” Gordon writes, about her choices to build a story around a grammar primer, but “[b]y following them through this rough and twisting terrain you will be beguiled into compliance with the rules…” Gordon also aligns herself with the non-sticklers’ club, arguing that words are more “Protean rather than Procrustean.” By tapping into our cultural fascination with the origin tales of vampires, Gordon has created an incisive guide that will provide hours of delicious rumination of English.
Roget's 21st Century Thesaurus
Barbara Ann Kipfer
At one point in our school days, most of us have attempted to impress our teachers by using our thesauruses to find the most unusual of synonyms for common words. And, for most of us, it turned out that the chosen synonym carried some shade of meaning that had nothing to do with what we were trying to say. But such mistakes are unlikely in the thesaurus compiled by Barbara Ann Kipfer, Ph.D. This splendid compendium of synonyms and antonyms is organized in the front section like a dictionary, with words in alphabetical order. In the second part of the book, words are grouped by “concept,” so that readers may be reminded of words with which they are already familiar, as well as helping them to find the new vocabulary word that most closely matches up with the writer’s thinking. For example, if you’re looking for a word for “blue,” you might be looking for a conceptual use of blue associated with “depression,” “music,” “color,” “indecent,” “profane,” or the dozens of other ways that we use “blue” in English. Thus the concept section will match you up with to the set of words that match the meaning you’re looking for.
A Dictionary of the English Language
Samuel Johnson was one of Eighteenth-Century London’s most colorful denizens. In his perambulation around the city, or during his hours of discussions in coffee houses and private salons, Johnson discussed subjects ranging from politics to sex and anything else that might be put forth as a topic of conversation. Johnson was fascinated by the English language. In 1755, he published his own dictionary containing over 4000 entries defining words in the common vernacular of both the street and the royal court. His dictionary entries are fascinating in themselves. Most of them feature a basic etymology and at least one definition. Johnson then uses quotations drawn from literature to illustrate the word’s usage. A trip through this dictionary’s entries will transport you back to the days of powdered wigs, hoop skirts, waistcoats, breeches, and long, elaborate sleeve cuffs.
Regardless of whether you’re a stickler who goes around correcting signs with misplaced apostrophes and mangled syntax or you’re a person who enjoys experimenting with the rules to see just how far you can push the language and still get your point across, the following list has something for you. Here are some books that will reacquaint you with precise punctuation, omniscient orthography, sagacious syntax and turn you into a grammar guru. Others will offer you a nuanced understanding of why the English language drew its grammar from the Greeks and the Latins, of how the brain reacts to sloppy writing, or how to choose the exact word that will convey your meaning.