Spruce up my grammar (no tree diagrams, please)
May 11, 2010 3:06 AM   Subscribe

Looking for a handy reference book on English grammar. What would you recommend and why?

I have numerous style guides and absolutely love Pam Peters' (or is it Peters's?) The Cambridge Guide to English Usage, so that's not what I'm after. I want to be able to look up whether it is "Peters'" or "Peters's". I also want to refresh my memory on certain grammatical bits and pieces because I'm learning new languages but The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language
or A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language is a bit too academic.

It looks like the student's version A Student's Grammar of the English Language or a grammar for teachers like Grammar for English Language Teachers (which hasn't been released yet) is more up my alley.

Anything you can recommend based on your experience?
posted by moody cow to Writing & Language (24 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
The tried and true classic is Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. It's nearly a hundred years old, but still largely relevant.
posted by AugieAugustus at 4:02 AM on May 11, 2010 [7 favorites]

David Crystal!

He was on my BA Linguistics teacher's Must Have This Book or Never Darken My Door Again list.

Sadly for the life of me I can't remember if it was Discover Grammar, Rediscover Grammar or Making Sense of Grammar that I had (the covers have all changed!) but I'm sure another Linguistics undergrad will be along in a flash to add the exact title.

Seriously he is amazing, lays out the complex grammatical ideas and then uses examples (and diagrams!) to make sure you understand why the example is that particular grammatical idea and not another one. I would still refer to it now in my daily life if I knew where my copy had gone.
posted by citands at 4:21 AM on May 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I found the Collins Gem 'English Grammar' very useful when I was learning German. There's a number of editions, but this is the one I've got.
Plus points are that it's cheap, very concise and well laid-out. The edition I've linked to is small enough to keep in your pocket, so really useful for those little details you can't seem to remember.

Otherwise Swan's 'Practical English Usage' might be useful, but it's more geared to the ESL teaching set, is bigger and more expensive. I'm guessing that your Cambridge Guide would cover much the same ground anyway.
posted by SyntacticSugar at 4:37 AM on May 11, 2010

Obviously 'there's' should be 'there are'. My mistake is in no way a reflection on the book I'm recommending.
posted by SyntacticSugar at 4:41 AM on May 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

The well-known travel writer Bill Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words is fun. As the name suggests, it covers only specific words, not grammar or punctuation.
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:51 AM on May 11, 2010

Graves and Hodge the second edition (which appears to be what is linked to above) is more a study of how to write good than a strict grammar. NB also that it suffers from some seriously bad copy editing. Just something to be aware of.

Worth reading, for all that.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:57 AM on May 11, 2010

I like Strunk and White, but sometimes if I need a laugh I also check Grammar Snobs are Great Big Meanies.
posted by hungrybruno at 6:31 AM on May 11, 2010

Strunk and White is no good, courtesy the NYT "Room for Debate" blog, where the only debate is exactly how many of your children it will murder. (featuring languagehat!)
posted by soma lkzx at 6:45 AM on May 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Strunk and White is great, but it's not really appropriate, here.

I'd go with one of the college "essay handbooks" (Hacker), which cover the basics pretty well and include lots of stuff on style as well.

If you just want to brush up in your browser, there's Purdue University's OWL.

For overkill, you can't beat the Chicago Manual of Style [Online version; sub req'd to see beyond the TOC].
posted by notyou at 6:45 AM on May 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

Strunk and White is great, but it's not really appropriate, here.

It sort of is. It will tell the OP whether to use Peters's or Peters'.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:53 AM on May 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Strunk and White is no good, courtesy the NYT "Room for Debate" blog, where the only debate is exactly how many of your children it will murder.

There's not much of a "debate" there -- more of a mantra repeated in six thoroughly redundant essays. (The Times clearly didn't follow Strunk & White's rule to "omit needless words"!) The first few reader comments are more convincing than the expert diatribes.
posted by Jaltcoh at 7:03 AM on May 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Style isn't quite grammar, but whatever. Little old Strunk & White, which I am sure the OP has already read (since they* have listed much wonkier works in the question) is fine as long as you remember that there are biases inherent: the nature of a style guide. You will fall into a deep dark pit if you start to believe there is only one "correct" choice in every situation in English. For examples, search AskMe for every style or grammar question ever. There's not usually only one answer: it ain't math.

Strunk & White is both famously opinionated and famously common -- probably the most common reference other than the Chicago or AP style guides -- so of course it's necessary to read it and know it, even if only because others will cite it endlessly at you, and even if you end up making conscious decisions to disobey their advice. Heck, especially then. At least they'll be conscious, educated decisions. This applies to any such book, of course.

Writers are always required to adhere to the style requirements of their publications, or more practically to rely on editors to do all the niggling little adjustments for them, but it's nice to be conscious and aware of when you are veering from conventions, and from which conventions in particular. It makes you a bit more confident at the wheel, if nothing else, which means you're more able to reach your destination and more likely to cause glorious, beautiful wreckage along the way.

* Strunk would flinch at that "they", but I do it on purpose. Suck it, Billy.
posted by rokusan at 7:20 AM on May 11, 2010

I usually recommend the Gregg Reference Manual if you're just using it to look stuff up every once in a while as it has one of the better indexes, includes more than the basics, and is fairly easy to use once you've looked at it a bit. It also has lots of business writing information on addressing various people (like how to address a letter if a rabbi is married to a PhD and other variations that sound like the beginnings of bad jokes), email style, memo writing, and other things that many people find helpful. I also like that I can get it spiral bound so I can have it lay flat while I'm comparing my versions to their examples. Plus you can get a used copy very cheaply.
posted by BlooPen at 7:25 AM on May 11, 2010

If you are looking for something less dry, I am a fan of Fowler's Modern English Usage, which is expansive, concise, and often downright hilarious. The only issue is that modern Engish usage does not always agree with Modern English Usage. For grammar and categorization, it cannot be beat (want to know the distinctions between wit, humour, sarcasm, satire, irony, invective, cynicism, and sardonicism? Fowler will set you straight.) However, vocabulary has shifted in the eighty years since Fowler wrote the first edition. He famously sniffs at truncated words like bus for omnibus and taxicab for taximeter cabriolet and when I opened my second edition copy at random, I came across Fowler declaring that the preferred name for the Prophet is Mahomet, advising readers to leave Muhammad "to the pedants and, Mohammed to historians and the like."

Fowler published in 1926; a second edition with minor revisions was done by Sir Ernest Gowers in 1965 and a third, more complete reworking was done by Robert Burchfield in 2004 or thereabouts. Burchfield is probably the most practical but he loses a lot of the wit in the original:


The speaker who has discovered that Juan and Quixote are not pronounced in Spain as he used to pronounce them as a boy is not content to keep so important a piece of information to himself; he must have the rest of us call them Hwan and Keehotay; at any rate he will give us the chance of mending our ignorant ways by doing so.

I think of this every time I hear an American news anchor say me' HEE co for that country to their south.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:30 AM on May 11, 2010

I came in here specifically to recommend Fowler's, but have been beaten to it. The Gowers revision is dated, but in an old-fashioned uncle sort of way, and remains the best of the three regardless. Keep a copy of The King's English next to it for diversion.
posted by bebrogued at 8:21 AM on May 11, 2010

I've always liked Garner's Modern American Usage.
posted by pised at 8:58 AM on May 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

I second Garner's. Beautifully written itself, it manages to address usage concepts so well that I always come away feeling thoroughly briefed on whatever issue I was looking up.
posted by minervous at 12:58 PM on May 11, 2010

I'll second The Chicago Manual of Style and Modern American Usage. I keep these next to my Oxford English Dictionary and have never needed anything further.
posted by reductiondesign at 4:42 PM on May 11, 2010

Diana Hacker's Rules for Writers.

I use this with high school students in Seoul, and something like 40% of our graduating class is going to top-15 US colleges. They use it all throughout high school, not only as a reference book but also as a source of practice exercises. It's very well organized and supplemented by a host of online content. Great little book.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:45 PM on May 11, 2010

Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage will not sit on a high chair and proclaim what is Right and what is Wrong, but instead tell you how English is actually used, letting you decide.

If you find CGEL too academic, you might want to try the introductory textbook based on it. Both of these are specific to English, though - you might also want to look at linguistics textbooks if you're after grammatical concepts for your language learning. You'll find little of that in style books like Strunk and White.
posted by Bukvoed at 10:07 PM on May 11, 2010

Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage will not sit on a high chair and proclaim what is Right and what is Wrong, but instead tell you how English is actually used, letting you decide.

Great resource, but not a grammar reference. I definitely recommend it, though, for anyone looking for a usage dictionary. It's awesome.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 12:12 AM on May 12, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for your suggestions, you've given me a lot to look into. Even though it looks like books such as those by David Crystal, the Gregg Reference Manual or A Student's Introduction to English Grammar are what I was after, I'll probably end up with a lot more books than planned.
posted by moody cow at 2:46 AM on May 12, 2010

Response by poster: Although I asked about grammar, there was some discussion about style guides in this thread. In case you're interested http://onlinestylebooks.com/ has links to style guides for almost any topic you can think of!
posted by moody cow at 5:50 PM on May 17, 2010

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