by Jane MacDonald
People frequently debate matters of grammar, punctuation, and usage
in writing groups, and sometimes cite references. Unfortunately,
not many lists of sources for such information are available in a form
that can simply be added to a bookmark folder or carried to a
bookstore. This piece should remedy that lack, and, perhaps, reduce the
incidence of logomachy (word courtesy of Chris Rehm). All prices
mentioned are list as of February, 2003; big discounts are often available.
All URLs were valid on the same date. All opinions expressed are correct.
But first, a few cautions:
1) Owing to a serious oversight, God did not hand down a definitive
work on these matters. That being the case, every single one of the
sources cited here contains errors. Every one. Moreover, in some
areas experts disagree. So don't bet the farm on anything of this nature,
ever. Even if you get your authority from me.
2) If your editor tells you to change something, and said editor is
wrong and you are right, don't argue unless the change will alter the
meaning of what you write. A muted suggestion is all right, but you
will lose any serious argument, because the editor is the boss. House
style books vary; some of them are ludicrous, but the world is like that.
3) If in the process of critiquing someone's work you find what appears
to be an error, don't call the cops right away. Sometimes writers violate
the rules on purpose, and sometimes that's a good thing to do.
Sometimes they are using UK style, and they are right.
4) This list is primarily for users of American English, which is very
different from British English. There's a note on British English at the end.
Now to the list.
You need to know that dictionaries are compiled by lexicographers,
not usage experts. The fact that a word is "in the dictionary" doesn't
mean you should use it; that just means some people, including
people you wouldn't like, have used the word somewhere at some time.
Any dictionary is better than no dictionary, but good dictionaries will
tell you at least that a word is "vulgar," or "colloquial," or otherwise
non-standard, if such is the case.
The best dictionary for everyday use currently available is
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.;
Houghton-Mifflin, 2000). It's best because it contains hundreds of
excellent "usage notes," cautionary advice compiled by a panel
of writers and linguists. It's also best because even though it's big it
can be picked up by the average person; this will develop your upper
body muscles. ($60.) There's
a $7 paperback, but it's abridged. An
abriged edition is on the Web at
It contains most, if not all, of the usage notes.
If you are looking for a really obscure word, your best bet among
dictionaries is Webster's Third New International
Dictionary, Unabridged (1993 ed.; Merriam-Webster, 1998).
Use it at the library, where they have space and a nice book stand
to set it on. ($119.)
For the absolute biggest, we borrow from our English friends:
Dictionary (With additions; OUP, 1997).
Many volumes; another library visit, or pay a large annual fee and
use it on the Web. Not worth the money, in my opinion,
unless it's a very long way to the library.
These and several other dictionaries are either on the Web or
available in CD-Rom; most of them are abridged in those formats,
or are older editions. There's no substitute for the real thing.
Check before you buy. Do a Web search for specialized
dictionaries of everything under the sun, from architecture to
I keep Dictionary.com at the top of my bookmark list for quick
spelling checks and short definitions--it's very handy:
Don't trust the spelling
checker on your word processor; they are all simple minded,
dogmatic, and often wrong, and they don't know the
differences among their-they're-there. They are, however,
useful for catching typos.
Style, Grammar, Punctuation, and Usage References
Most people who try to write are better than average at all these
things, but we all need some place to go to check things or refresh
The best American usage book is Bryan A. Garner, A Dictionary
American Usage (NY: Oxford, 1998). ($38.) It is
mildly conservative, but not as conservative as Strunk & White
(below). One reason it's best is that it's new--many older
usage books are around, but they age fast.
The most popular grammar and usage book is Wm. Strunk & E.B.
Elements of Style (4th.ed.: Allyn and Bacon, 2000).
It's super-conservative; you won't go wrong 98 percent of the time
if you follow it, but it's not quite as good as people say. For
one thing, it's quite limited; for another, the revisions are cursory,
so it verges on obsolescence. Finally, the style suggestions apply
more to essays and other non-fiction than to novels and stories.
But it's cheap ($7.), and it's pocket size.
The one on the Web is
the 1918 edition; don't use it.
If you're writing scholarly papers, or certain kinds of non-fiction,
you'll need one of these. The standard guide for many publishers is
the Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.; U. of Chicago, 2003). ($55.)
A good one is Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Term Papers,
Theses, and Dissertations (U. of Chicago, 1996). ($14 paperback.)
Another standard is the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research
Papers (5th ed.;
1999). ($15 paperback.) Many disciplines have their
own style guides.
The best grammar site on the Web by a country mile is the one
originally set up by Charles Darling: http://ccc.commnet.edu/grammar
It's comprehensive, and usually correct. Generally it follows Strunk &
White, but it has more and better
examples, and discusses many
things not in S&W.
The best usage site on the Web is The American Heritage Book
of English Usage
(1996): http://www.bartleby.com/64/ - This one is
not terribly easy to use, but it's very good. Unfortunately, it's a
little old, and in some areas, such as gender
problems, it's already
out of date.
Jack Lynch's Guide to Grammar and Style:
- The second best
grammar site on the Web.
The Owl handouts and exercises from Purdue University:
http://owl.english.purdue.edu/handouts/grammar/index.html - Simple,
clear, and easy to use, these pages might be the best for someone
with really big problems, but they aren't as comprehensive as the two
The Blue Book of Grammar and Usage: http://www.grammarbook.com/
Quite elementary, but not bad.
Common Errors in English: http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/ - Good
discussions of just what it says.
Tina Blue's Grammar and Usage for the Non-Expert:
comprehensive, but very sensible.
Many more sites exist, but these are the best.
If you want feisty and opinionated sites, try:
Bill Walsh's Guide for Copy Editors:
SAGP: The Self-Appointed Grammar Police!
The last one, run by Mike Taylor, is fairly new. If you're nasty enough,
he might be willing to accept another volunteer officer or two. (See
the FAQ.) For my only
contribution so far, see Case No. 9. The
punishments are a little on the medieval side, but "extremism in the
defense of grammar is no vice," etc.
Just a little note for logophiles. If you qualify, get a copy of H.W.
English Usage (Oxford: 1937 or later). It's far and
away the most fascinating of all--you can amuse yourself for hours just
reading it. Unfortunately, it's too old to be authoritative, but you'll
learn things from it. This is not the edition below, revised by Burchfield,
which most people say is simply not Fowler's, even though it has
its uses. Get the real thing -- it's still in print.
Finally, a note on UK style, and then a conclusion.
Things are tough. There's only one recent UK book that comes close
to being a guide for the grammatically perplexed, and it's just okay.
R.W. Burchfield's book, called The New Fowler's Modern English Usage
(Third Editon)($30.), is not a bad book for UK-style writers to have
around, despite the condemnation heaped on it when it first appeared in
1996. It's not "Fowler" -- it lacks the humor, the scalding wit,and the
delightful prose in Fowler's work, and, instead, is often prolix,
repetitive, and weak in its conclusions. It is generally much more
permissive than such books usually are -- Burchfield is willing to put
up with a lot of words and usages that most educated people condemn. On
the other hand, his articles on "decimation" and on split infinitives
are properly cautious.
Here's an excerpt from John Lanchester's review in the London Review
of Books with which I agree:
"There are times at which the new edition of Modern English Usage
makes the reader think of an ethics manual written by a philosopher
who keeps pointing out that the difference between right and wrong
is an imaginative construct. ... Although Burchfield lacks some
of Fowler's virtues he has still managed to produce a very useful book.
Its reasonableness is sometimes suffocating, but is none the less
reasonable for all that; and his historically-minded even-handedness is a
clarifying force. ... In general, the harder or more abstruse the
point, the better Burchfield is; the grammatical discussions in
his book ... are exemplary. ... There is now a gap in the market for a
clear, unequivocally prescriptive account of contemporary written
English. ... It would agree with Fowler that a grammarian's job is 'to
tell the people not what they do and how they came to do it, but what
they ought to do for the future.'"
For UK-style punctuation, I use Burchfield, which is very good.
There's a good UK-style dictionary at
Please, somebody, put up a UK style Web site for grammar,
punctuation, and usage--we need it.
I hope you find this essay to be of some use. Feel free to copy
it and hand it out to classes, writing groups, etc., as long you
include the copyright notice and byline, and don't change it in
any way. If you have the nerve to want to complain about something,
or merely want to voice your unstinted praise, please write to me