Books I Rely On

People often ask me what books I recommend for people who want to improve their writing. They should know to never ask an author that question. When I’m done explaining why they need multiple copies of my own books (you can’t read in bed the same one you keep in the bathroom, right?), and why they make excellent gifts, coasters, and Frisbees, I eventually get around to giving them some helpful information. But I tweak their question just a little. Instead of telling them which books I recommend, I tell them which books I find the most useful.

Here’s my list. Any list of writing resources should come with a disclaimer: None of these books is an absolute authority. They often disagree with each other, for example the style guides mentioned below disagree on the commas in “red, white and blue” versus “red, white, and blue.” When leading authorities disagree on the rules, you know that there is no single right answer.  You can either choose the answer that seems best to you or follow the style of whatever publication or institution you’re writing for.

If you’re writing a school paper, your teacher may have told you to follow MLA style. But if you’re writing for your local newspaper, your work will probably end up in AP Style. If you’re not sure which style they want, then you don’t need to worry about which style is right. If it was important, they would have said so.

That said, here’s my “most useful list.”

"Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage." Love the book, hate the title, which makes it too easy to confuse this book with a dictionary. It's actually a usage guide. Unlike dictionaries, that set out to define every word in modern use, usage guides set out to address specific areas of language confusion. For example, if you open a dictionary to the word "and," you'll see definitions and spellings and pronunciations and etymology." But if you open a usage guide to "and" you'll see a discussion on whether it's true you can't start a sentence with it. (It's not true, by the way.) Of all the usage guides, Merriam-Webster's seems to take the broadest view and to take into account the widest range of variables and sources. I highly recommend it.

“Garner’s Modern American Usage" is another excellent usage guide. It's slightly more editorialized than Merriam-Webster's. But if you're looking for someone to make a judgment call for you on some disputed usage issue, there's probably no better source.

“Fowler’s Modern English Usage” is the most famous usage guide. It contains lots of great advice and information. Its biggest drawback is that it focuses primarily on British usage, which can at times fail an American. But it still deserves its reputation as an excellent source of expert advice.

“The Associated Press Stylebook” is, as the name implies, a style guide. One of its objectives is to help editors ensure consistency within a single publication. For example, do you write “One in 11 dentists recommend” or “One in eleven” or even “1 in 11”? That’s just a question of style. And AP is the official source for a lot of newspapers who want to be sure they’re consistent from page to page. AP also contains discussions of grammar and usage points as well as punctuation basics. Their advice can give your writing professional polish. Just be aware that some of their “rules” are really serving suggestions that don’t apply outside an AP-adherent publication. 

“The Chicago Manual of Style.” Book publishers and a lot of magazine publishers use this as their official style guide. Like AP, it contains lots of helpful advice on everything from hyphenation to number writing. But unlike AP, this book serves as a manual for the entire book publishing process. So it’s bigger and more expensive and contains lots of information that doesn’t pertain to most writers.

“Webster’s New World College Dictionary.” Whenever you need the most definitive answer you can get, turn to a dictionary. Dictionaries have the clout to operate as referees. To my mind, they’re the most authoritative arbiters of the language. So if three style guides and two usage guides tell me not to use “over” to mean “more than,” but my dictionary says the terms are synonymous, I know I’m safe using them interchangeably. But be warned: Dictionaries often disagree with each other. So even these refs can’t always make a final call. “Webster’s New World” is the default Webster’s of the “AP Stylebook,” which I use most in my editing work. So it’s the buck-stop-here source for much of my editing work.

“American Heritage Dictionary.” This one is just smart. I don’t like every call its editors make, but most are excellent and this dictionary’s entries often include the opinions of its “usage panel,” a group of experts who vote on disputed uses.

“The Oxford English Grammar.” If you’re looking for some light entertainment on a rainy afternoon, you’d be better off cleaning the septic tank with a Q-Tip than curling up with this excruciatingly academic read. But if you want to understand hardcore grammar, it’s worth it. This book, a true “grammar,” is a goldmine of knowledge about syntax and sentence structure.

Barbara Wallraff’s “Word Court.” This little book, culled from the former Atlantic Monthly editor’s column, touches on a lot of issues relevant to writers and editors. Her answers are snappy and smart.

“The Most Common Mistakes in English Usage” by Thomas Elliott Berry. Though dated and incomplete, this little book contains a few gems of knowledge that make it worth thumbing through.

There are a lot more books I admire and rely on. But, at my house, these are the ones whose spines are cracked and whose pages are crumbling.

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