Grammar Gremlins: On the Book Shelf

The books in the grammar reference section of my overstuffed bookshelves bristle with book marks and sticky notes. Even when I know how some grammar or punctuation rule is supposed to work, I often don’t remember the details, or even the names of the more obscure usages or parts of speech. So here’s a little tour of my shelf, which may help you build your own.


If you napped through junior high school, The Elements of Style, written by William Strunk Jr. And E.B. White, covers all the basics. The first edition was published in 1935, and it hasn’t changed much over the years. My copy is a Third Edition (1979); Amazon is currently selling the Fourth Edition (1999) for $3.79, or you can download it to your Kindle for free. It is also available, free, in pdf format from several sources on line, including The print version of Style is only 92 pages long, it covers all the basics, and it has a good index. Every writer should have a copy.


Another good overview of the field is Pinckert’s Practical Grammar: A Lively, Unintimidating Guide to Usage, Punctuation, and Style, by Robert C. Pinckert. This book covers everything in 232 pages, including the index. In case you need to work on grammar and punctuation (maybe your teachers slept through junior high—we didn’t all have the same educational opportunities), Pinckert includes little exercises and quizzes to help you along.


Next on my shelf, probably the leader in the book mark sweepstakes, is The Careful Writer, by Theodore M. Bernstein. This one covers word usage, definitions, grammar questions, and punctuation, organized in an alphabetical format, so you do need some idea of what you’re looking for (although if you’re a word nerd like me, you’ll find something interesting on any random page). I love this book.


Bernstein also wrote Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer’s Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears and Outmoded Rules of English Usage, which covers exactly what the subtitle says, also in alphabetical format, and The Dos, Don’ts & Maybes of English Usage. If I don’t find a clear explanation in one of these three, it’s probably in another.


The Merriam-Webster Concise Handbook for Writers is as close to a stylebook for independent writers (that is, not designed for specific publications or industries) as I’ve come across. It covers everything from punctuation (chapter 1) to copyediting and proofreading (chapter 9), and it has a twenty-page index.


Although I often hop on line to quick check a spelling or definition, I do think every writer needs at least one good print dictionary. I use Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition. I also have an enormous unabridged Random House Dictionary of the English Language, all 2500 ten by twelve inch pages of it. This not only has a lot of obscure and foreign words, it gives word origins and usage dates as well. At random (excuse the pun), “hokey” dates to 1815, “pithy” to 1300, and “touring car” to 1900. Interesting, and very useful for those writing historical fiction. (Historical writers might also want English Through the Ages, by William Brohaugh, which is not a dictionary, but a cross-indexed listing of words with their estimated dates of first usage.)


Some of these books have been with me for years, while some are relatively new. I check out the Writing shelf whenever I go to my local Half Price Books, which is where a number of my reference books came from. If you don’t have a good local used book store, try Amazon,, or You should be able to fill up your own reference shelf with your favorites.

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