December 16, 2010

Weekly Language Usage Tips: The gift guide edition

Posted in books on language, gift guide at 6:16 am by dlseltzer

Tip: The gift guide edition

A reader writes:

Since it is the season….do you have any recommendations for gift books that would be enjoyed by people who enjoy your weekly commentaries?

Wow! I get to write a gift guide! This request is so cool. And, of course, I am happy to oblige.

The good news is that people who are interested enough to write about language and usage are generally writers who want to make their work fun to read, and they often succeed. Even the most venerable of language usage writers, H.W. Fowler, who published the incomparable, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage in 1926, wrote with a wit that is still as sharp today as it was back in the day. It is really fun to read. However, while I go to this book often, I don’t use it as my final authority on usage, since many of his rules on usage are out-of-date. Bur who can resist someone who introduces his five page essay on numbers like this?

Several kinds of mistake are common, and various doubts arise, involving the question of number. With some of them pure grammar competent to deal; in others accommodations between grammar and sentence are necessary or usual or debatable; occasionally a supposed concession to sense issues in nonsense. The following numbered sections are arranged accordingly, the purely grammatical points coming first. 1. Subject and complement of different numbers. 2. Compound subjects. 3. Alternative subjects. 4. Red herrings. 5. Harking back with relatives. 6. Nouns of multitude, etc. 7. Singular verb preceding plural subject, and vice versa. 8. As follow(s) etc. 9. Other(s). 10. What. 11. Pronouns and possessives after each, every, etc. 12. Nonsense.

A new edition was recently released in paperback: Fowler, HW. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: The classic first edition. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press; 2010. ($17.95 List Price)


My current favorite–and one I love for the writing as well as its usefulness as a reference–is Garner’s Modern American Usage. I keep Garner’s on my desk at all times-maybe because it is too big to put anywhere else. This is a huge book (almost a thousand pages and weighing more than four pounds), organized as a dictionary with words and topics discussed listed in alphabetical order. Garner’s writing is first rate, and his sensible rules of usage are, for the most part, right on the money (I disagree with a few of his points, but that’s to be expected). And it’s a bargain. Although it lists for $45.00, it’s sold for $28.00 at Amazon, and with its approximately 10,500 entries, that’s less than a third of a cent per entry. For sheer economy and pleasure of reading, it really can’t be beat.

Garner, BA. Garner’s Modern American Usage. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press; 2009. ($45.00 List Price)


Another nicely written book which is, again, organized like a dictionary, and easy to read and use is Jack Lynch’s The English Language: A User’s Guide. Lynch is a Professor of English at Rutgers, and writes without fuss. Here is his entry on impact.

I have to express my distaste here: impact should remain a noun; a proposal can have an impact, but cannot impact anything without degenerating into jargon. Using impacted for anything other than a wisdom tooth is inelegant.

I’m definitely a fan.

An earlier version of this book is available online. Called, A Guide to Grammar and Style, you can access it here: <>.

Lynch, J. The English Language: A user’s guide. Newbury, MA: Focus Publishing/R. Pullins Company; 2008. ($14.95 List Price)


I recently wrote about a new book, The Glamour of Grammar: A guide to the magic and mystery of practical English by Roy Peter Clark. This is a little slip of a book, but one that will entertain and entrance and, most importantly, will help us improve our writing. He makes reading about writing very approachable.

Avoid speed bumps caused by misspellings.

This chapter will help you remember why good spelling matters, … But first, let me sit in wonder about another link between language and enchantment. Just as we learned that the word glamour is a corrupted form of grammar, connected by the use of prescribed language as a magical charm, so now we must confront the ancient associations between the spelling of a word and the casting of a spell.

Hard to resist.

Clark, RP. The Glamour of Grammar: A guide to the magic and mystery of practical English. New York, NY: Little, Brown, and Company; 2010. ($19.95 List Price)


Finally, For just the fun of reading (although I use it as a reference, too) is Patricia O’Conner’s Woe is I: The grammarphobe’s guide to better English in plain English. It has good advice, and it’s a whole lot of fun to read. She provides straightforward usage tips in an entertaining way.

Here’s an example:

Are You Too Possessive?

One way to make the noun possessive is to add ‘s; another way is to put of in front of it.

What about using both? Are two possessives better than one? Should we say a friend of Jake? Or a friend of Jake’s? I’ll end the suspense quickly. Both are correct.

But when a pronoun is involved, make it a possessive: a friend of his, not a friend of him. Jake is a guest of my daughter or [daughter’s], which makes him a guest of mine.

O’Conner is a former editor of the New York Times Book Review which is a pretty good credential to have. She is also the author of two other books on writing: Words Fail Me: What everyone who writes should know about writing and You Send Me: Getting it right when you write online. The latter is definitely on my holiday wish list. You can also find her blog online at <>.

O’Conner, PT. Woe is I: The grammarphobe’s guide to better English in plain English. New York, NY: Riverhead books. 2003. ($15.00 Paperback List Price)


And what am I hoping to find in my stocking besides the book mentioned above?

A colleague wrote:

Based on a suggestion, I recently read this book called “How to write a lot: A practical guide for productive academic writing” by Paul Silva.

I’d recommend it. It is short book and focused on academic writing. I thought it had a few good tidbits.

So that’s on my list. Along with:

The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago (or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself) by Carol Fisher Saller

Just because the reviews and the excerpts are so good. And:

Common Errors in English Usage by Paul Brians.

This is a book by the same fellow who wrote my favorite and most frequent go to website: <>. Actually, the book is the same website info expanded into book format. Before retiring, Dr. Brians taught English at Washington State University, I use the website on a regular basis when checking on things for the WLUT.

Here is the product description on Amazon:

Mixed-up, mangled expressions; foreign-language faux pas; confused and confusing terms; commonly mispronounced words–they’re all explained in this useful guide. The Second Edition of this classic reference is revised & expanded by 25%.

Sounds good to me. And this is what Dr. Brians had to say about ‘academia’ on the website:

Although some academics are undoubtedly nuts, the usual English-language pronunciation of “academia” does not rhyme with “macadamia.” The third syllable is pronounced “deem.” Just say “academe” and add “ee-yuh.”

However, there’s an interesting possibility if you go with “ack-uh-DAME-ee-yuh: although some people will sneer at your lack of sophistication, others will assume you’re using the Latin pronunciation and being learned.

It is very amusing and packed with facts. So check out the website, and I’m sure you’ll covet the book.

I want to mention a few others that I read and use often:

The Elephants of Style by Bill Walsh.

Medical Writing; A prescription for clarity, Third Edition by Neville Goodman and Martin Edwards

Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A writer’s guide to getting it right by Bill Bryson

These are useful and good reads in their own right.

So have a happy and healthy holiday, and cuddle up with a good book. If you have any book suggestions, please share them.

The WLUT will be back with more tips in the new year. Best Wishes!


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