Grammar Books for a College Student with No College-Level Writing Skills
November 7, 2013 9:35 PM   Subscribe

I am looking for recommendations on two books. I'm looking for a book that will teach me how to write essays and how to essentially write like a college student. I am also looking for a grammar book that will teach me VERY basic and simple grammar rules. For example, the difference between i.e. and e.g., when to use a comma, et cetera. Help is very much appreciated!

During my first year year of college, I always got points off on my essays for how I structured my sentences. I got good grades on my papers because I think I managed to address the prompt and also did a good job researching and presenting the material so that is not what I need the most help with. I want to focus on my actual writing skills, which I think are severely lacking. I have difficulty knowing in what order words should go in a sentence and one comment I often receive in my papers is "awkward sentence." This is even a problem when I speak. Sometimes I have a really hard time expressing a thought even if it is very simple. English is not my first language and I think this may be part of the reason why I struggle with this. I would appreciate any suggestions from people who's first language is also not English and who struggled with articulating themselves but are now well-spoken.

So, essentially, what books will teach me how to make my sentences FLOW? I want to be articulate, write clearly, and I want my sentences to stop being "awkward."

I am also looking for a grammar book that is written in a way that is very elementary and easy to understand. I am just looking for something to use as a reference whenever I forget simple grammatical rules.

Thank you!
posted by NowYouKnow to Writing & Language (22 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

Not a book but something to consider: many colleges have a writing center that is staffed by people who help students with writing. It's like having a free writing tutor who will work with you one on one. Often these centers are not well publicized, so it's worth looking into. Getting some feedback on your current writing could be more useful than reading a book. A writing tutor might also have book suggestions based on your particular writing.
posted by medusa at 9:46 PM on November 7, 2013 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: I won't threadsit but I should mention I saw Strunk & White recommended in another ask me thread but then I saw that some people do not consider this to be such a good grammar book after all. Do any of the criticisms about this book have merit?
posted by NowYouKnow at 9:51 PM on November 7, 2013

(My mnemonics are: "i.e." == "in essence", "e.g." == "example given". That's not what they really stand for, but it's close enough for my purposes.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:04 PM on November 7, 2013 [5 favorites]

Do any of the criticisms about this book have merit?

It's overly prescriptive, but it still has a lot of good basic advice.
posted by empath at 10:15 PM on November 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Strunk & White is great, but it is not appropriate here.

Look for one of Diana Hacker's Handbooks for the essay writing guidance and a basic Grammar like Walter Smart's English Review Grammar for... Grammar. Simple explanations, clear practice exercises.

Online, the Purdue OWL is terrific, too.
posted by notyou at 10:50 PM on November 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

just from reading your question, i can tell that you have college-level writing skills, you're doing a-ok in this area, don't worry too much about it. i know college grads who don't know the difference between i.e. and e.g. but will blithely use them interchangeably, which is one of my major pet peeves. i.e. (id est, "that is") is for further refinement of a single point, e.g. (exemplia gratia) is for giving an example. a grammar pedant would take issue with the preposition with which you ended the second sentence in your second paragraph ("where i need the most help" is better than "what i need the most help with"), but this rule seems to be falling by the wayside as younger writers end sentences with whatever word they choose to! the "who's" in the last line of that paragraph would also be adjusted by editor brucie.

you make sentences FLOW by being a native speaker who's read william safire columns for decades, unless you're zombie vladimir nabokov, and there was only one of him. now i want to see a movie where zombie vladimir nabokov joins forces with zombie william safire.

good writing comes from the writer himself/herself, not an external prescription. the greatest writer of the 20th century, who redefined the concept of a novel, did not always use perfect grammar, and the people who have read him will have no doubt of whom i speak.
posted by bruce at 10:52 PM on November 7, 2013

Best answer: Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace will, to some extent, fulfil both your needs.

On the e.g./i.e. problem specifically (which seems to give a lot of people trouble), The Oatmeal offers memorable guidance.
posted by pont at 10:56 PM on November 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I'd recommend avoiding the textbook altogether and look for something like Eats, Shoots and Leaves or Grammar Snobs are Great Big Meanies. I think I've learned much of my grammar from more interesting sources, than from textbook-type things.

The fact that you're aware of grammar puts you a few steps ahead of many other people. I am also a huge fan of the Chicago Manual of Style, while not a grammar guide, per se, will teach you lots of fun stuff (at least it's fun to grammar nerds). Their Q and A is usually interesting.

To learn more about grammar, I encourage you to just keep looking stuff up, and keep your curiosity up, and you'll keep learning.
posted by hydra77 at 11:19 PM on November 7, 2013

Best answer: I was going to drop in to say : Style: Towards Clarity and Grace. Any old edition will do. For sentence structure and readability, it's hard to beat. For freebies, the advice on the Purdue OWL is pretty good, like this summary of Lanham's paramedic style of revision.
posted by LucretiusJones at 11:28 PM on November 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: As a college level Graduate Teaching Assistant (i.e. I grade papers), I offer the following advice:

1. My favourite grammar-for-beginners book is Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. It's short and fun, and though some of her opinions are contested she argues well. I've found some good guides hidden in the middle of some of those 'how to write a college essay' type books. Go to your library and browse, there will probably be a few bays dedicated to style and grammar.

2. Don't judge your formal written English by your spoken English or your informal blog comments. I cannot string together a coherent sentence, but I can write one down if I leave time to revise it.

3. Read other people who love writing. I've learnt a lot from LanguageHat's comments here on MeFi. Stephen Fry wrote a book about poetry that celebrates the style and construction of great poetic works.

4. If in doubt, write shorter sentences. The fewer clauses a sentence has, the better. My students' sentences carry on for lines lines. By the time I've reached the end, I've forgotten what they said at the beginning!
posted by dumdidumdum at 12:39 AM on November 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I read an earlier edition of Lanham's Revising Prose is college. It's basically a practical treatise on how to structure sentences so as to remove the confusing, incoherent and irrelevant and best express the core meaning (of the sentence and message at hand.) As LucretiusJones indicates, he gives a kind of step-by-step method. It was a terrific eye opener for me.

If the problem is "awkward sentences" it should be very helpful.

For good flow, I agree reading good writers is really useful. Have you tried classic English language poets? These are the people who know English most deeply and know how to use it's rhythms and cadences. Maybe try some who wrote in blank verse, like Browning or Robert Frost. If you read aloud you can pick up an awful lot about syntax implicitly.
posted by bertran at 2:28 AM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Garner's Modern American Usage is a great reference.

While his other books focus on legal writing, I think they could be helpful for all writing.
posted by melissasaurus at 3:51 AM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

The complaint a lot of people have about Strunk & White is that, while their stylistic advice is generally sound, they don't actually understand grammar very well and so give confusing and sometimes bad advice about grammar. Here's a somewhat ranty article about S& W's grammar advice by the linguist Geoffrey Pullum. (He goes into more detail about the topic here.)

A lot of the same people who criticize S & W's grammar advice, including Pullum, do like Williams' Style: Toward Clarity and Grace.

(Style and usage guides are, by their nature, prescriptve. There's nothing wrong with that – that's what they're for. The issue here is whether the grammatical advice is sound or not.)
posted by nangar at 6:00 AM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also in favor of more accessible sources of grammar advice: Bill Walsh, a copy editor at The Washington Post has written two exceptional books: Lapsing Into a Comma and The Elephants of Style discussing grammar rules and style issues - he has a third book out this year (referenced on that page) called Yes, I Could Care Less: How to Be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk. He also has a website for copy editors and language mavens called, sadly, though there were once epic reports of blackjack trips to Vegas, those appear to be no more - still a lot of other good stuff though.
posted by deliriouscool at 6:28 AM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

For help on how to write college-level essays, you might take a look at They Say, I Say.
posted by megancita at 7:28 AM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'll give you some advice that you didn't actually ask for:

1. When you are working on a writing project, make sure you read it out loud to see how it flows.

2. If you have a friend or a writing center to help you, ask them to go over it and mark the "awkward" issues so you can fix it before you turn it in.

3. Most native speakers get their grammar and style from reading over the course of their lifetime, and I can tell you one thing NOT to read: the internet. I have noticed over the past 2 years that I can barely understand A LOT of content on the internet. Not just comments which are hastily scribbled and posted, but also articles on websites of major newspapers and magazines, as well as professional websites for all types of intelligent people. Not just the common spelling and usage errors that everyone makes (your/you're, its/it's, there/their/they're, etc) but whole chunks of repeated words that make no sense and sentences missing important parts.

Find some time every day to read good books so you can be sure you are getting the right input to feed your brain.
posted by CathyG at 7:28 AM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm going to make a slightly different suggestion and say "read more."

I was often praised for my writing in college, despite sometimes being a bit shaky on actual rules of grammar. I believe that being a bookworm helped me develop a sense of good writing.

If you wanted to compose like Beethoven, you'd listen to his music. So read good writing.

And leave yourself time to revise- even great writers put down some awkward sentences in the rough draft. If you have time to set it aside and then come back to it a day later, you'll have a better chance of catching errors and identifying quality issues.
posted by bunderful at 8:26 AM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Purdue's Online Writing Lab has a lot of material that may help. Here's their grammar page.
posted by thelonius at 8:32 AM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

As far as grammar and rules go, I enthusiastically Nth Purdue's Online Writing Lab. That plus a hardcopy of A Writer's Reference were my essential tools the years I tutored college students in essay writing and worked in my school's writing lab.

I know you're looking for books, but I want to suggest finding your school's writing lab, too. Most schools have them. They're usually a place where you can drop in during certain hours for help with whatever you're working on. Awkward sentences, flow, overall essay structure, and grammar are exactly the things they can help you with, and you will likely learn better by actively working on an actual assignment with help than you will by just reading about how to write good essays.
posted by rhiannonstone at 1:02 PM on November 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all so much! I appreciate both the answers that gave me book suggestions and also the general advice. I marked as best answer the ones that mentioned books that I've decided to buy but I still appreciate the rest of you for taking your time to reply.
posted by NowYouKnow at 9:11 PM on November 8, 2013

Best answer: I'm very late to this question, but...

I might have been the one you saw recommend The Elements of Style to someone who wanted to professionally edit/hone their writing. I made that suggestion because I've found that professional writing has velocity. Sharpening one's text via Strunk and White will eliminate the obstacles that slow a reader down.

But you are asking a different question (learning grammar), and so I have a different suggestion:

Warriner's English Grammar & Composition - Complete Course

It is a Grade 12 book (high school senior). During university I borrowed it from a roommate and actually worked through the book cover to cover. I can't speak to the current version, but the book was very helpful to me. And English is not my first language. Good luck!
posted by 99percentfake at 9:46 AM on November 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

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