==some thoughts on its right use==
(Or return to the front page.)
"Books will speak plain when counsellors blanch."
--Francis Bacon, Essays, 'Of Counsel'
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).
Where titles are hyperlinks, they are each--save one I'll explain in a moment--a link to a page showing purchase options for that book. Each such page will show all editions of the book currently available new through any of the six Amazon national divisions (all divisions' availabilities will be shown, as will the price in all corresponding national currencies for each book).
Each book page here will also give, at its bottom, a link for that book to ABE--the "Advanced Book Exchange", a huge network of internet used-book sellers--which will call up a page showing all used copies currently for sale on the internet through Abebooks--which is usually virtually all copies available at all, since very few internet used-book sellers do not belong to ABE. Should you want to seek used copies of other books--whether or not about English--than those listed here, you can do so from this Abebooks free-form search page.
The one title hyperlink not a purchase connection is the one for The Burchfield which links to a review of the thing by John Simon.
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.
There are three-and-a-half key usage guides for English; the "half" is because Bryan Garner's book, while still pretty new, seems on its way to that status.
H.W. Fowler, Modern English Usage: this is the classic manual. It currently exists in three forms, each an "edition":
the first edition is as Fowler wrote it, and despite its age, three-quarters of a century, fine advice.
the second edition, lightly updated by Sir Ernest Gowers in 1965, is a fine work as well, Sir Ernest having been a sane and learned man (though most lists of reference books tend to cite the original first edition, "the real stuff" if you like).
the third edition, perpetrated (there is no other word) in 1996 by Robert Burchfield, is a rape, pure and simple, of the name "Fowler"; Burchfield's wildly descriptionist perversions of the classic prescriptionist masterpiece have assured him a definite place in Hell. I made the horrid mistake, in innocence, of purchasing a copy, and now look forward to emulating Nero Wolfe's treatment of the Webster's Third by feeding the pages into a roaring fire, one by one.
(I understand that The Telegraph quoted from the paragraph above--"Burchfield's wildly descriptionist perversions of the classic prescriptionist masterpiece have assured him a definite place in Hell"--in their obituary of Burchfield, without attribution, which quotation was picked up and further disseminated by the Associated Press: sic transit gloria mundi.)
Theodore Bernstein, The Careful Writer: Bernstein, long at The New York Times, wrote several guides, but this is the enduring one, offering thoughts on some topics not covered in the classic manuals.
Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage: (Despite the name, of use to all English speakers.) Follett died before completing this work, but the finishing touches were applied by a panel of luminaries under the enlightened guidance of Jacques Barzun, and we may well take it that Follett's spirit rests in peace. But be afraid--be very afraid: a man named Eric Wensberg has apparently (I say that because I have only reviews to go by, having not seen The Thing) done to Follett much of what Burchfield did to Fowler. Accept no imitations--get only an original, used if need be.
Bryan Garner, A Dictionary of Modern American Usage: the title is an homage to Wilson Follett, but the book itself is an "updated" mix of Fowler's and Follett's wisdom with, I would say, some occasional loose surrenders to descriptionism; but as a quite recent (1998) work, it is of special value.
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, Webster's New World College Dictionary, turns out to be the "official" dictionary of most major journalism enterprises (the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times included). Or, for a slightly bigger work of great merit, there is the American Heritage Dictionary, which was created as an express counter to the dreadful Webster's Third. Whatever you choose, I strenuously advise avoiding anything whatever from the Merriam company unless you are yourself a descriptionist.
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, 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.
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.)
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? trailing preposition.]
I have not sorted these books in any way, but most are usage-related.
Strunk & White, The Elements of Style: a slim masterpiece, perpetually in print.
Eric Partridge, Usage and Abusage: in the mainstream, but with occasional differences of opinion from that mainstream; it is witty and entertaining as well as informative.
Margaret Nicholson, A Dictionary of American-English Usage: another variation of Fowler's original classic; it will do no harm, and perhaps some good, to compare Nicholson's entries with Fowler's originals.
Harcourt, Brace (publishers), Harbrace College Manual-- (whatever is the current edition): this is a pretty basic work on English as she is spoke, with little explanation of the rules copiously set forth, but it is a handy all-purpose guide when subtleties are not involved.
Sir Ernest Gowers, The Complete Plain Words-- (the "complete" is because this was originally two discrete books): Gowers, who edited the 2nd Fowler's, here sets forth his own work; these were meant as "plain language" guides for government officials accustomed to writing gobbledygook, and so are less useful to the ordinary human, but are still of value.
Jacques Barzun, Simple & Direct: the title is remarkably descriptive of the book, a little gem.
Herbert Read, English Prose Style: Read is commonly acknowledged one of the all-time greatest writers in English; this book is not a look-it-up manual but a wide-ranging discourse, heavily laden with extensive samples of good and bad prose.
I have not listed particular thesauruses or books of quotations, but some of each are obviously valuable tools.
For those who are interested in books on English other than those listed, I have now added an entire English-grammar/usage bookshop; there, one can review and purchase--new from Amazon or used through Abebooks--any book currently avaialble new that Amazon classes as related to "English grammar or usage". Moreover, one can also search all of Amazon and all of Abebooks for any book whatevr, on any subject whatever--and the Amazon new-book search facilities are better than Amazon's own, while the Abebooks search is easier to understand and use then Abe's own. Do take a look.
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