AS MARK TWAIN said, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug." Writers have to make choices in expressing meaning, and correct writing is not necessarily good writing. Some of today's best writing often challenges the murky boundaries of "proper" English. An understanding of usage, grammar and style is a necessary part of every writer's toolkit. Learn the mechanics well, like a great golfer learns a golf swing, so that your choices become almost unconscious, like breathing.
The books here are a great way to sharpen your tools, and will have you writing with better clarity and correctness. While this list is hardly definitive, these books can help you become an expert on the rules of grammar and style, so you'll know when to follow them--and when to break them.
The Elements of Style: Fiftieth Anniversary Edition
by William Strunk and E.B. White.
Longman, 128 pages. Hardcover, $19.95.
First published in 1959, this classic remains the most popular writing reference book. The book's first half shows you how to navigate the often-difficult waters of punctuation and grammar, while the second half may be the most concise exploration of style ever written.
Throughout, advice is presented in a brief, direct manner. Elaborating on its recommendation to "avoid fancy words," for example, the book tells writers, "Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy ... one's ear must be one's guide: gut is a lustier noun than intestine." On outlining before writing, the book sagely suggests, "You had best anticipate what you are getting into" before you dive in. Essential reading for writers.
Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English
by Patricia T. O'Conner. Riverhead,
240 pages. Paper, $14.
Anything but scolding and school-marmish, grammar expert O'Conner uses disarming wit and a lighthearted tone to guide writers through the labyrinths of punctuation, usage and more. With example-filled chapters titled "Comma Sutra: The Joy of Punctuation" and "Death Sentence: Do Cliches Deserve to Die?," her text uses more than a spoonful of fun to help the grammar medicine go down.
O'Conner has updated her book to include a great chapter on writing effective e-mails. "E-mail," she says, "is no excuse for lousy English." A former editor for The New York Times Book Review, O'Conner knows her stuff and knows how to make it accessibly fun for even the most stubborn grammarphobe.
On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
by William Zinsser. Collins,
336 pages. Paper, $14.95.
Renowned writing teacher Zinsser shows you how to craft great nonfiction--from journalism to memoir to personal essays--with clarity, solid structure and style. Filled with humanity and warmth, Zinsser's guide communicates his faith in the power of clarity.
"Good writing," Zinsser writes, "has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, and it's not a question of gimmicks. ... It's a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength." For almost two generations, On Writing Well has been an essential resource for nonfiction writers looking to craft sentences and paragraphs that sing with grace, power and lucidity.
Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
by Lynne Truss. Gotham,
240 pages. Paper, $12.
In this passionate look at the everyday errors of punctuation, especially on public signs, advertisements and in newspapers, Truss argues the case for grammatical correctness: "Without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning." Truss tends to be a stickler, pushing back aggressively against verbal trendiness and the casual slant of so much modern communication.
Considering correct grammar an endangered species, Truss is not afraid to swoop down on mistakes like a SWAT team. Grammar sticklers everywhere embraced her book, and it's no wonder. The back cover promises, "This is a book for people who love punctuation and get upset when it is mishandled." Writers who take a more casual approach to grammar will find Truss a worthy opponent.
The Sound on the Page: Great Writers Talk About Style and Voice in Writing
by Ben Yagoda. Collins, 304 pages. Paper,
Yagoda and the 40-plus great writers he interviews (including Elmore Leonard, Anna Quindlen and Dave Barry) offer loads of helpful advice on how any writer can develop his or her own literary style, that unique quality known as a writer's voice. Yagoda explores theories about style but also gives countless examples of good style in practice from a diverse group of writers.
His knowledge about the history of style, from the time of the ancient Greeks onwards, is evident, as is his understanding of literary style as practiced by today's best writers. Throughout, Yagoda carries his learning lightly, writing in an accessible and entertaining manner that shows that the author of a book on literary style can write pretty stylishly himself.
A Pocket Style Manual
by Diane Hacker. Bedford/St. Martin's,
272 pages. Paper, $25.75.
Hacker offers a straightforward, quick and easy-to-use guide to the essentials of writing and research and provides practical help on grammar, punctuation, usage, research and more. Hacker shows writers exactly how to write tighter, use active verbs, and untangle needlessly complex sentences.
Filled with instructive examples, Hacker's manual is as pragmatic as a style manual can get. Regarding the issue of finding the appropriate voice for a piece of writing, she's characteristically direct: "An appropriate voice is one that suits your subject, engages your audience, and conforms to the conventions of a particular genre." Hacker's description of wordiness is typically precise: "Long sentences are not necessarily wordy, nor are short sentences always concise. A sentence is wordy if its meaning can be conveyed in fewer words."
Spunk & Bite: A Writer's Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language & Style
by Arthur Plotnik. Random
House, 272 pages.
A great style manual for writers who take a more improvisational approach to their work. Plotnik, a member of The Writer's Editorial Board, offers readers a funny, much looser look at style than that offered by Strunk and White's Elements of Style.
As I wrote when reviewing Plotnik's terrific book for this magazine in 2005: "Plotnik has written a book that perfectly supplements the brilliance of Strunk and White, encouraging writers to move beyond the safe, well-known Strunkian rules. Spunk & Bite is filled to the brim with Plotnik's energy and engaging sense of humor. He blends erudition with hilarity, backing up his advocacy with countless examples of writers who prove that taking risks can pay large literary dividends."
A Dictionary of Modern English Usage
by H.W. Fowler. Oxford, 832 pages.
Paper, $29.95. (This edition will be
available in November.)
First published in 1926, Fowler's beloved guide to grammar and usage is filled with lively, intelligent and (yes) entertaining discussions about best practices in writing. Fowler preferred flexibility to pedantry and has been sparking debates for generations.
Fowler doesn't just give you the answers to grammar and usage questions but shows that these questions can be seen from different, and often equally strong, points of view. The fun of Fowler is that he wants his readers to be actively involved in ongoing grammatical debates, and he gives readers enough background information to do so. Fowler ultimately wants his readers to make decisions for themselves, and this liberating tendency is what makes his unique book so popular, especially among writers.
Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing
by Mignon Fogarty. Holt, 240 pages.
Best known for her popular online podcasts about grammar, Fogarty (aka Grammar Girl) provides pithy, insightful advice about grammar in an engaging, accessible style. Grammar Girl is no gung-ho grammarian like Lynne Truss; instead, she prefers to disarm her readers by readily admitting that she's prone to making mistakes, too.
Fogarty explains that her "books and podcasts aren't for purists anyway--they're for people who actually need help." And she offers loads of help in a lighthearted manner. Her advice on "between" and "among" is typically practical: "If you remember that between is for two things and among is for more than two things, then you'll be right most of the time."
The Chicago Manual of Style
The University of Chicago Press, 957
pages. Hardcover, $55.
No writer's bookshelf would be complete without this invaluable guide to good writing and editorial practice. Whether you want to know how to attribute a quotation, prepare a manuscript for submission, write a bibliography, or gain permission to use another writer's work, this is the place to go.
The manual has been updated in the 15th edition to reflect changes due to the Internet. A new chapter also covers American English grammar and usage: It outlines the grammatical structure of English, shows how to achieve clarity, and identifies common errors. For writers and book lovers, The Chicago Manual is chock-full of useful information, including examples and illustrations.
Chuck Leddy, a contributing editor at The Writer, lives in the Boston area and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His book reviews appear regularly in The Boston Globe.
Source Citation:Leddy, Chuck. "10 must-have grammar and style books: add these essential guides to your writer's toolkit for sharper poetry and prose.(WriteStuff)(Recommended readings)." The Writer 122.8 (August 2009): 52. Academic OneFile. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY LIBRARY. 4 Oct. 2009
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