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Useful Reference Works

Some essential, all useful.

Useful Reference Works

Pages on this mini-site:


Some Useful References

""Books will speak plain when counsellors blanch."
—Francis Bacon, Essays, ‘Of Counsel’

Some Useful References

There are all kinds and degrees of reference books available to the dedicated pursuivant of excellent English. Here is my list of the more important ones; other lists might differ, but beware any list that contain The Burchfield Horror (described below).

Truly Essential Books
Grammar

George O. Curme, English Grammar: a fine mix of rigor and reason, and pretty much the definitive English grammar. Although organized as a learning tool, its density makes it more of a reference tool—though the careful, patient reader can also use it as intended, as a textbook.


Usage

There are four key usage guides for English.


Diction

There may be many good desk dictionaries; most I’ve seen have ranged from weak to putrid, but I certainly haven’t examined them all. That said, my own favorite is Webster’s New World College Dictionary; but, if you have internet access (as you obviously do), the wonderful American Heritage Dictionary (created expressly as a counter to the dreadful Webster’s Third) is available, at no cost to use. Whatever you do choose, I strenuously advise avoiding anything whatever from the Merriam company unless you are yourself a descriptionist.


Style

There are several competing schemes for "style"—the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of such things as capitalization, formal titles, and where to put punctuation in (and out of) quotations. Be aware that regarding that last, there are sharp and sharply debated differences between the American and the British systems (the British is manifestly superior, but these trivial-seeming differences are enforced by publishers with much more ruthless force than grammar or even spelling).

The usual standard for American usages is The Chicago Manual of Style (now in its 17th edition), which is why I list it with the utter essentials (hey, I’m an American); but even in the U.S., there are competing manuals. Be sure to use it solely for matters of style: its concepts of grammar and usage are usually awful.

Note especially that specialist publications, particularly learned journals, often have correspondingly specialist style requirements, and appropriate specialist manuals are essential for anyone writing for publication in any such forum.

(There is also a useful on-line portal to style-information web pages for the MLA, APA, Chicago, and CSE styles.)


Other Important Books

These are all valuable resources that supplement the ones listed above. I do not pretend for a moment that this is an exhaustive list, but I think that everything on it is something that anyone serious about using English ought to own a copy of. [See? A trailing preposition.]

I have not sorted these books in any way, but most are usage-related.

I have not listed particular thesauruses or books of quotations, but some of each are obviously valuable tools.





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This page was last modified on Tuesday, 20 August 2019, at 6:17 pm Pacific Time.