Can you recommend good books on grammar and writing?
January 15, 2011 7:27 AM   Subscribe

Can you recommend good books on grammar and writing?

I need to brush up on my grammar and writing, but I've no clue which writing and grammar books to buy. I tried to find grammar and writing books but found it to be a chore and was driving myself nuts.

I'd like to get comprehensive books which teach you grammar and writing starting at a novice level and take you up to an advanced level.

I await your recommendations. I'll look through the list of your recommendations tomorrow evening and will try to find the most promising titles on used books sites. If I'm to find them, I'll purchase them.

posted by GlassHeart to Writing & Language (22 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Strunk and White is a classic on grammar and basic style. The Writer's Options is good for actually learning the art of crafting sentences.
posted by blueyellow at 7:33 AM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I wonder if you could find an old grammar textbook for kids and learn from that. You'd have repetitive exercises that will drill the information into your brain and clear, concise descriptions of how all the important bits of language work.

I've recommended it on here before but for more advanced nitpicky grammar stuff, there's nothing better than Garner's Modern American Usage (even if you're not American).
posted by pised at 7:40 AM on January 15, 2011

Probably not the answer you're looking for, but in my humble opinion the best way to learn grammar is to read grammatically sophisticated authors whose style you like.
posted by phrontist at 7:43 AM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

On Writing Well by William Zinsser and Essential English for Journalists, Editors and Writers by Harold Evans.
posted by neushoorn at 7:45 AM on January 15, 2011

2nding Strunk & White.
posted by dontrockwobble at 8:01 AM on January 15, 2011

This book will blow your mind--nuts and bolts instead of annoying generalities that don't actually tell you how to do it:
posted by zeek321 at 8:01 AM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I like Write to the Point.
posted by Hermes32 at 8:06 AM on January 15, 2011

Seconding zeek321's recommendation of the late Joseph Williams's Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. The edition published under that title by the University of Chicago Press is cheaper than the textbook edition to which zeek321 linked, but it doesn't have the exercises.
posted by brianogilvie at 8:21 AM on January 15, 2011

The illustrated edition of Strunk & White is fun and interesting.

You may also be interested in doing some reading on Plain English.
posted by ES Mom at 8:31 AM on January 15, 2011

I'm a big fan of Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. Not a grammar book, but really helps with clarity, conciseness, and the like.
posted by LucretiusJones at 8:34 AM on January 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Joseph Williams's Style is fantastic. He goes from the basics to some very esoteric, subtle theories of what makes a sentence not just correct but "elegant." He's very critical of traditional rules about what's correct, even though he does subscribe to plenty of them.

Strunk & White is great too, and please ignore the naysayers! People use that book as an effigy, without paying much attention to what it actually says. (For instance, many people say that the book tells you not to use the passive voice. Wrong. It says to prefer the active voice and usually avoid the passive voice, and that's good advice. Strunk & White is not rigidly doctrinaire on most issues like this.)

Another great book on how to write well is Jacques Barzun's Simple & Direct. Emphasis on "how to write well." Unlike those other two books, this one doesn't have neatly organized chapters on how to avoid misusing words, where to put commas and semicolons, etc. It's more of a serious book that you'd want to read from cover to cover, but it's less useful as a reference than the other two.

If I had to recommend one, it'd be Williams's Style. It's the most sophisticated and up-to-date of the three.
posted by John Cohen at 8:40 AM on January 15, 2011

It would help us to know what level you are currently at (high school composition, college essays, not writing in your first language?) I don't know if you want to review what a preposition is just for the heck of it or if you have an end goal in mind for your writing.

I have found a really fresh and helpful perspective that I return to often in Clear and Simple as the Truth.However, there are no grammar exercises to be found there. It is a style guide and assumes basic mastery of sentence mechanics.
posted by slow graffiti at 9:34 AM on January 15, 2011

Mod note: op is not anonymous, please feel free to send your anti-Strunk & White critiques to email or include them here in constructive question-answering comments.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:34 AM on January 15, 2011

The Elements of Style
posted by Kudos at 9:36 AM on January 15, 2011

I liked The Complete Plain Words, but it was a long time ago that I read it, so not sure how well it fits with current usage.

Another good resource is the Economist Style Guide, and there's a selection of material from it available online.

Both these not only help with writing well, they're pretty enjoyable to read too.
posted by philipy at 9:56 AM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

nthing Williams. Unrecommending Strunk & White.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 11:03 AM on January 15, 2011

I'm going to split my answer into two parts: grammar, then writing. I've got some of the books mentioned above (Strunk & White, Zinsser, etc.), I don't think there is anything I can add to the comments above, so I'll stick to books that have not been mentioned yet.

For grammar, two books that I love are: I have copies of Elements of Grammar and Woe is I on my bookshelf, but don't use them nearly as much. Having said that, they have plenty of fans on Amazon, so I include them here for completeness. The reason I like Transitive Vampire and Well Tempered Sentence is because they go through the elements of grammar: all of the parts of speech for Vampire, and all of the marks of punctuation for Sentence. I was pretty much raised by wolves, so when I got to college and grad school, I found that I could write reasonably well, but only because I was mimicking what I had read -- I had no idea how to construct a proper sentence and couldn't name the parts of speech on a bet. By comparison, all of the other grammar books I have devolve into lots of lists of specific situations, like when to use who vs. whom. More useful as a reference than something you would read to learn about grammar.

For books on writing, I'll n'th the recommendation for Zinsser; I'm a big fan. One book that is a little more devoted to the mechanics of writing that I found to be very helpful was Good luck on brushing up! I've seen a couple of recommendations here in the comments that I wasn't familiar with. I'm going to favorite the thread and come back to check out some of those later.
posted by kovacs at 11:04 AM on January 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

I'll second Strunk and White, and Zinsser, and add Ann LaMott's "Bird by Bird." It's also funny as hell.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 11:41 AM on January 15, 2011

Swell essay by George Orwell: Politics and the English Language.

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never us a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

posted by ovvl at 1:05 PM on January 15, 2011

Not answering the question directly, but:

If you like this sort of thing, Fowler's Modern English Usage might be to some dated, inapplicable or Anglo-centric, but it is hilarious. He's got a great sense of humour.

In a similar vein, Robert Graves wrote style guides that used quotes from his rivals (Auden, Eliot) as examples of what not to do. I think some of this is in 'The Crowning Privilege', if I'm not mistaken.
posted by ovvl at 1:21 PM on January 15, 2011

The only style guide that will tell you about both the historical facts of usage and the attitudes of the many style/grammar mavens who have attempted to regulate it, thus telling you everything you need to know to make up your own mind, is Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage (Amazon) or its predecessor Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (Google Books full view). If you're going to try Fowler's, which is fun but badly dated, by all means get the brand-new Oxford University Press edition with a new introduction and notes by David Crystal.

Strunk & White is not great, it's a decent little book wildly overhyped and misused. If you get it as a gift (very likely, since people love the little sucker, plus it's cheap), by all means read it and get what you can out of it, but take it with a lot of salt and always verify against sources that actually know what they're talking about (namely, Merriam-Webster).
posted by languagehat at 4:58 PM on January 15, 2011

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