The English Language

==some thoughts on its right use==

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Reference Books

"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).

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.

Truly Essential Books


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.


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.)

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? 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.

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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This file was last modified Wednesday, 05-Oct-2011 05:42:43 EDT Pacific Time.

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