Looking for a good book on English grammar.
August 31, 2011 6:04 AM   Subscribe

Looking for a good book on English grammar.

Greetings. In my job, I have to do a lot of writing and editing. I don't have an English background (economics was my major), but I completed all of the required English courses in college. However, over the past 10 years, I mostly write in my position and consider myself an ok writer, but as time has gone on, I feel like I have lost the basic "rules" of English grammar. This is starting to concern me and with the age or texting and emailing, I often completely ignore all basic grammar rules (omitting apostrophes, for example) and this is starting to creep into my professional writing role.

Over the years, I have accumulated several books, including:
- Strunk & White's, The Element's of Style
- Eats, Shoots and Leaves (Lynne Truss)

I have a couple more at home (the names escape me now). Lately, I have been listening to The Grammar Girl's podcast (Mignon Forarty) and have picked up a couple of her books, which I enjoy very much.

I have completed the basic Amazon searches, Google searches and even read a couple of previous questions posted on this site, but I am still looking for suggestions. Here are some points that might help:

- English is my first language
- I have a college degree
- I do a lot of writing and editing in my current job, even though I am not employed as an "editor", but I would like to improve my knowledge on this topic (but I am not writing print articles or anything that needs to be published)
- I am looking for some basic grammar books that are entertaining to read (without trying to be purely funny)
- I am not really looking for "style" books at the moment (crafting sentences, etc), I am more looking for proper grammar usage
- I have no idea what split infinitives are and I would like to brush up on terms such as pronouns, reflexive pronouns, etc without getting too advanced
- I have checked out a local used book store looking for a basic textbook (didn't find one that was appropriate), but I would settle for a grammar textbook (that I could buy online) that would give me the basics, without being too technical.

Are there books out there that would suit my needs? Hoping to hear some good recommendations. Thanks in advance!
posted by dbirchum to Education (18 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
I quite like The Deluxe Transitive Vampire.
posted by zamboni at 6:38 AM on August 31, 2011 [6 favorites]

I'm a big, big fan of this reference book - Practical English Usage by Michael Swan. I'm an ESL teacher, and found it especially valuable in my early years when students would ask grammar questions I wasn't prepared for, like the difference between "made of" and "made from," or when you should use past perfect (and why), and the like. It's got a lot of examples, tries to split as many grammatical hairs as possible, and good, clear explanations.

I call it my Bible.
posted by MShades at 6:46 AM on August 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This isn't an entertaining book at all, but I recommend the Gregg Reference Manual as a reference. It has a much better index than some of the other grammar books, so it's easier to find something when you need it. Used copies are cheap, but get the spiral bound version so it's easier to use as you're writing.

I used to work at a science/engineering/business heavy university, and students in those disciplines liked having this as their reference guide. In addition to grammar, it includes a lot of business writing information (like how to address something to a couple when one is a rabbi and one is a doctor...stuff like that).

The other online reference source that gets referred to a lot is the Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab). It has exercises so you can test yourself, which is nice when you're trying to figure out whether you've really understood a concept. Or you can go through each section of the site systematically--it covers hundreds of topics.
posted by BlooPen at 6:53 AM on August 31, 2011

You've got some good suggestions already. I'd add one of the college Composition handbooks (Diana Hacker's is the standard) to the list. Well organized, clear explanations, sensible examples.

I'd also suggest the Chicago Manual of Style, but that might be overkill.

Which reminds me. I'm still working from CMS 14. Time to update.
posted by notyou at 7:29 AM on August 31, 2011

I have no idea what split infinitives are

"to boldly go" is a split infinitive. Your choice whether it sounds affected or poetic.

For writing qua writing, check out The Reader Over Your Shoulder. Lots of examples of how writing goes wrong.
posted by IndigoJones at 7:49 AM on August 31, 2011

I still think Burnham's Basic Verbal Skills is the best and most straightforward introductory grammar textbook – it's out of print but you can find a used copy.
posted by nicwolff at 7:54 AM on August 31, 2011

I just want to issue a brief warning: Do not take The Elements of Style too literally. It's well regarded for its accessibility and its general usefulness, but it is just flat out, objectively wrong about a lot of things.

Here is Geoffrey Pullum on The Elements of Style, with concrete examples. The sloppy treatment of passive voice is particularly insidious. The term is misapplied all the time, and I reckon The Elements of Style is in large part responsible.

That said, I suspect you actually are looking for a style guide. Virtually any introductory book on English grammar can give you an overview of the parts of speech and what the terms mean. (E.g., an infinitive verb form is the fundamental verb form. In the case of split infinitives, it refers to verbs with the to particle--that is, 'to run,' 'to go,' etc.. To split an infinitive in that case is to interject an adverb between the 'to' and the other part of the verb. "To boldly go where no man has gone before" is the classic example of a split infinitive. The unsplit version would be 'To go boldly...'. Happily, that rule is widely considered silly, even among prescriptivists these days, so don't sweat it.) Since you are a native speaker, you don't need to commit the rules of grammar to memory. You already know them, whether you can articulate them or not.

A style guide will focus on guidelines specific to writing, provide you with hints and tips for punctuation, and for writing clearly and effectively. So I suspect that would serve your needs much better.

The best recommendation I can come up with on that count is probably previously recommended (and very widely used) Chicago Manual of Style. It's not perfect, but it is very widely adopted, and I've encountered a lot of people who seemed to genuinely believe that it was somehow objectively accurate. (It isn't, but if you want to appeal to prescriptivists, your best bet is to rely on the most common prescriber.)
posted by ernielundquist at 8:19 AM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

When I taught ESL we all swore by the Betty Azar's Fundamentals of English Grammar.
posted by jcrcarter at 8:30 AM on August 31, 2011

That said, I suspect you actually are looking for a style guide..

Seconding this.

As a native speaker of English, you already know how to construct grammatical sentences. You might not know what an infinitive is, but you know how to use one.

The difference between a sentence that you might create and a sentence that is considered correct in a certain context (such as an academic paper) is a matter of style, not correct grammar--although many confuse the two. A variety of style guides

That said, many style guides, including Strunk & White, contain some abominable and/or confusing advice.* Some knowledge of English grammar will help you evaluate it. For example, if you know what a passive construction is you will know that some of the sentences that Strunk & White calls passive often isn't, rendering the advice regarding passive sentences nonsensical. You will also know that a passive sentence is not objectively wrong, and that whether it's a good stylistic choice will depend on the context.

For learning about actually grammar, I would recommend The Cambridge Grammar of English (Geoffrey Pullum is one of its authors.) It's a descriptivist book rather than a prescriptivist one, and will give you better tools to evaluate your style choices. Read the Amazon description if you think you might be interested.

* Unless it's a guide prescribing rules that a certain publisher requires you to follow, then you should always consider it to be advice rather than an absolute.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:58 AM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Garner's Modern American Usage

posted by pised at 9:04 AM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Most newspapers and big magazine have their own style guides. The Economist Style Guide is one of the best and is entertainingly written. Loads of magazines etc use it. Of course, it's British English.
posted by rhymer at 12:54 PM on August 31, 2011

Seconding Modern American Usage and the Chicago Manual of Style.
posted by reductiondesign at 12:59 PM on August 31, 2011

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage is one of the only books recommended by the people over at Language Log. I like it a lot. Michael Swan's book is probably a good choice, too.
posted by wintersweet at 3:04 PM on August 31, 2011

I'd recommend The Chicago Manual of Style. It really helped me with strange things like split infinitives because it's a reference manual. I now know how to use a semi-colon and colon correctly too. Very useful.
posted by minx at 5:01 PM on August 31, 2011

Understanding English Grammar, by Thomas Payne.

Here's the Product Description from Amazon:

"Language is primarily a tool for communication, yet many textbooks still treat English grammar as simply a set of rules and facts to be memorised by rote. This new textbook is made for students who are frustrated with this approach and would like instead to understand grammar and how it works. Why are there two future tenses in English? What are auxiliaries and why are they so confusing? Why are English motion verbs hard to use? Why are determiners so important in English? These and many other frequently asked questions are answered in this handy guide. Student learning is supported with numerous exercises, chapter summaries and suggestions for further reading. An accompanying website offers further resources, including additional classroom exercises and a chance to interact with the author. It is the essential grammar toolkit for students of English language and linguistics and future teachers of English as a Second Language."
posted by Ellemeno at 10:00 PM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Little Green Grammar Book. Mark Tredinnick is a lovely bloke who taught me to write like a 'trusted friend' rather than an officious twat.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:55 AM on September 1, 2011

You're pretty much covered by the recommendations from the above posters. Those are solid references. I myself have been trying to work my way through the venerated Chicago Manual of Style (I have the 16th edition). But I've found that too much grammar in one sitting can put me to sleep.

For more casual browsing, I like Common Errors in English Usage by Paul Brians. Although there is a book version, I usually just go to the website. I spend a few minutes there during my lunchbreak, just clicking around. It makes me feel like I'm shaping up my English a little bit each day.
posted by pimli at 7:14 AM on September 1, 2011

I believe Diana Hacker's Rules for Writers is your best option, although many of the above are great. The Hacker is brilliantly organized and doubles as a desk reference.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 2:55 AM on September 3, 2011

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