Mike writes to ask what resources I use or that have influenced me regarding grammar and style. Here is a quick list of some of the books that have influenced me over the years. Let me say, however, that this list is misleading. A good bit of what I think about grammar, writing, and style has been shaped not by reference works or books about style and grammar but simply good literature. The best way to improve one’s use of English is to read good writers. I enjoy a range of writers in a variety of genres but to pick out a just a few, Mark Twain, C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, E. B. White (below), and James Thurber come to mind.
I began consciously working toward becoming a better writer after seminary. I concluded that, despite all the writing I had done in school, I was not a very good or clear writer. So I began haunting used book shops to find books that would help me improve. I think the first book of this sort that I read was Edwin Newman’s books (below). I knew him from the television news and he seemed like a literate fellow who, like some of the older television newsmen of that era (e.g., Walter Cronkite) had a background in print journalism—he certainly wasn’t of the blow-dried variety of modern news readers. Thence I might have read vol. 1 of Mencken’s American Language, and writers such as (and like) Safire and later WFB (all below). Of these Buckley was my least favorite, even though I am a fan and miss his presence on television and in print. His spy novels were quite fun.
The OED = The Oxford English Dictionary. The best way to use the OED, in my opinion, is online, at least that is how I use it. I get it through my employer’s library. It’s an amazing resource and probably the greatest such reference work ever compiled. There are books about it (e.g., Caught in the Web of Words). There are works that I might have listed (e.g., The Joy of Lex) that I have not because I have not used them enough to say much about them.
I’m a big fan of Lynn Truss but I have only listed the one work. Some writers hate Strunk and White and others love it. It helped me but I have not used it for a long time. The Chicago Manual of Style is expensive but worth every penny.
I tried to balance the list between British and American sources. Of the former sort Fowler is one of my favorites. English Usage—an earlier edition, by Fowler himself, as distinct from the more recent edition(s)—is great fun if only for the way he insults abusers of the language. One could learn a good bit about English just randomly reading a few entries, which is how I sometimes use it. Highly recommended.
Barzun was a prophet about the decline of American education. No one, or at least not enough people, listened and here we are.
I haven’t used Zinsser much but one of my colleagues recommends it so I include it. There are other resources I use that are fairly obscure, technical dictionaries, dictionaries of American slang—now quite dated and quite unfiltered and now quite politically incorrect—but this is a suggestive list that I hope will provide some help.
What would you add to the list?
- Barzun, Jacques. 1994. Simple & Direct: a Rhetoric for Writers. University Of Chicago Pr.
- Brown, L., ed. 1993. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Buckley, Jr. William F. 1996. The Right Word: About the Uses and Abuses of Language. Random House.
- Espy, Willard R. 1989. The Word’s Gotten Out. Clarkson Potter.
- Follett, Wilson. 1966. Modern American Usage. Hill and Wang
- Fowler, H. W. 1950. A Dictionary of Modern English. Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Garner, Bryan A. 2009. Garner’s Modern American Usage. Oxford University Press.
- Greenbaum, S. 1966. The Oxford English Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Mencken, H.L. 1937. The American Language v.1 . Alfred A., Knopf
- Newman, Edwin. 1974. Strictly Speaking: Will America be the Death of English? Bobbs-Merrill Company.
- Newman, Edwin. 1975. A Civil Tongue. Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc.
- Oxford English Dictionary
- Strunk Jr., William, and E. B. White. 1999. The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition. Longman.
- Russel David Harper, ed. 2010. The Chicago Manual of Style. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.
- Safire, William. 1991. Coming to Terms. New York: Doubleday.
- Truss, Lynne. 2006. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: the Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. Gotham.
- Turabian, Kate L. 1973. A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. Fourth Edition.
- White, E.B. 1954. The Points of My Compass. New York: Harper and Row
- Zinsser, William K. 2001. On Writing Well, 25th Anniversary: the Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. New York: Collins Reference
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