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You could look it up

If you are interested in consulting works on language and usage, these sources are helpful. Just keep in mind that there are numerous points on which the authorities do not agree, and you, like editors, will have to exercise judgment and taste.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. Perhaps the single most comprehensive single-volume reference for the American writer and editor. It is sensible and evenhanded. Some entries give more academic-historical information than you may want.

R.W. Burchfield’s New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Updated, with contemporary lexicographical information by a former editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, but still with a strong British cast.

Garner’s Modern American Usage is an updated and expanded edition of Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage. It is handy, sensible and conversational in tone. It is the work to which I usually turn first. Mr. Garner is also the author of the “Grammar and Usage” chapter in the 15th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style.

H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. British and dated, but a fundamental work. Perhaps the only reference book on grammar and usage ever to be read widely for amusement.

Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage. Less fun than Fowler, but more up to date.

Ken Smith’s Junk English. Trenchant, impatient and passionate.

John Bremner’s Words on Words. The author is not as amusing as he imagined himself to be (Neither, sadly, am I), but his advice remains sound.

Bill Walsh’s Lapsing into a Comma: A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print – And How to Avoid Them. Material from The Slot Web site converted into a book. Up to date, sensible, and not nearly as cranky as the subtitle would suggest. His second book, The Elephants of Style, also repays attention.

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, by Allan M. Siegal and William G. Connolly, is at variance with Associated Press conventions followed at most newspapers, but its advice on the language is shrewd and thoughtful. Worth having and consulting.

Theodore M. Bernstein’s The Careful Writer. Somewhat dated, but still useful.

Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. I have a sentimental attachment to the 1962 edition on my shelf. I’m not persuaded that the updated editions are equally successful.

The appendix on grammar in Webster’s New World Dictionary is a useful summary.
Laura Kessler and Duncan McDonald’s When Words Collide, fourth edition.
The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition.
The standard Harbrace College Handbook.
Edward P.J. Corbett’s The Little Rhetoric and Handbook. Sage and succinct.
Frederick Crews’ Random House Handbook. A college textbook, but comprehensive, clear and literate.
Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s The Well-Tempered Sentence and The Transitive Vampire. Great fun — worth reading for the example sentences alone.

For a history of the development of the English language, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language by David Crystal is highly readable.

In our time, to be “innumerate” — mathematically illiterate — is as dangerous as any other form of illiteracy, and newspapers tend to be particularly innumerate. To remedy that, consult two useful books by John Allen Paulos, Innumeracy and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper.


Three of my colleagues in the American Copy Editors Society maintain Web logs that you might find worth a look.

Bill Walsh of The Washington Post, whose books are mentioned above, runs Blogslot.

Nicole Stockdale of The Dallas Morning News maintains A Capital Idea.

Douglas Fisher of the University of South Carolina writes Common Sense Journalism.

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:48 PM | | Comments (2)


Thanks for the plug! I was also pleased to see John Allen Paulos on the list. His stuff is amazing -- as a typical math-ducking journalism major, I never thought I'd be choosing books about math for pleasure reading.

Another good one to help sort through technical mumbo jumbo is WIRED Style, from the publishers of WIRED magazine.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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