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Wisdom from the Grammar Goddess: A Few of My Favorite Things

By Diane Sandford, Published on December 22, 2003
Diane Sandford is the Director of Library Services for the Washington, DC office
of Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson LLPShe has many years of experience
in editing and as a grammar expert within the firm.

Why buy books on grammar, writing style, diction, and rhetoric? The answer is two-fold. First, these books give advice. Second, they are fun to read. The days are past when I had unlimited time to scour several of these tomes a year in the hopes of becoming a more effective writer, but the fun of analyzing words and sentences remains. Part of good writing is taking pains with synonyms, using the appropriate emphasis, not using surplus modifiers, and mastering the fine points of grammar. Unless you work in a community of word people, you must read and re-read the masters. Below are the primary reference and style books that I recommend to anyone who is serious about good writing.

1. Bernstein, Theodore M. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage (Atheneum, 1965; reissued by Free Press, 1995).

Bernstein is the first source I turn to for any question about grammar or diction. Bernstein is close to being a modern Fowler (see below), except that he has limited his nearly 500 pages to practical advice rather than the theory of rhetoric. Add to this the fact that Bernstein writes well and quickly gets to the point. Although originally published in 1965, this resource still remains viable and modern. You can find more authoritative sources - e.g., Garner’s Modern American Usage (850 pages of two columns per page), but few of us require extensive scholarly analysis, ramifications of the suggested advice, and a historical survey to justify the conclusions. Rather, we want an expert to provide no-nonsense advice in a few words. This is the one book on grammar that you must have.

2. Zinsser, William K. On Writing Well, 25th Anniversary (Harper Resource, 2001).

Zinsser taught writing at Yale and has written 16 books. This title has sold more than a million copies and remains a popular resource on any writer’s bookshelf. One reason for its popularity is that this book can be read rather than studied. Zinsser also offers a substantial amount of good advice. This book is my first recommendation to anyone who wants to improve his/her writing skills. Even if you are unable to finish the book, you will find something valuable in each chapter. Take a look at this short excerpt:  

Clutter is the disease of American writing. Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important. But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.

Yes! Get to the point, and say what you mean with the fewest possible words. Leave fancy expressions to poets, songwriters, and romance novelists. Oops! I just violated the rule Zinsser advocated. Well, you get the point.

3. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 2nd ed., revised by Sir Ernest Gowers (Oxford University Press, 1965).

Question: Which statement is correct?

(a)  One plus two is three.  (b)  One and two are three.

It took me nearly a year to read this book. Fowler attempted to infuse wisdom into his advice, and he succeeded. The book is in dictionary form, but each entry is equivalent to a signed article by a practicing scholar. For almost 75 years, this book was the most respected of all scholarly sources that dealt with grammar, rhetoric, and diction. It is now dated, and others have stolen much of its thunder. Nevertheless, no book, author, or encyclopedia of English has ever displaced the great Fowler. I have read clarifying observations and insightful remarks in Fowler that I have read nowhere else. 

Answer: Fowler informs us that the word choice depends upon what is in the mind of the author - e.g., one unit plus another two units are three units, but the sum of one and two is three. Yes, this is obvious now, but until I read Fowler, I couldn’t decide.  

Fowler has been so popular for so long that it is currently in its third edition. The first edition was published in 1926 and is currently available in paperback. The second edition was revised by another grammarian in 1965 and is the classic that most editors use. The third edition (1996) is a complete re-write by R.W. Burchfield. Burchfield’s The New Fowler's Modern English Usage is a much different book from the original Fowler (first and second editions). My feeling is that perhaps modern pedantic accuracy has replaced wisdom.

If you plan to use this book as a reference, purchase the third edition. If you plan to read it, then locate a copy of the second edition.  

4. Barzun, Jacques. Simple & Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers, 4th ed. (Quill, 2001).  

Jacques Barzun is a highly respected writer and thinker in academic circles and offers advice on writing like a scholar. First published in 1975, this book is now in its fourth iteration. One of the treasures in this book is Barzun’s 19 principles of good writing - e.g., Principle 3 (my favorite): “Look for all fancy wordings and get rid of them.” Does that sound familiar? This is the same rule of rhetoric that Zinsser advocates. Barzun believes that “fancy wordings” distract the reader from the author’s ideas. So do I.  

He noted that there are two reasons for bad writing: Either you don’t know what you’re writing about, or you don’t know how to write about it. Many years ago I marked this sentence in my copy: “The truth remains that the would-be writer, using a book or a critic, must teach himself.” If you are serious about improving your writing, read books like Zinsser, Barzun, Bernstein, and maybe even Fowler. Serious writing requires serious effort.  

5. Strunk, William, Jr. and E.B. White. The Elements of Style, 4th ed. (Allyn and Bacon, 2000).  

The value of this little book lies in its list of basic grammar facts and advice to memorize. The majority of this perennial favorite is devoted to grammatical examples and elementary technical advice. It is so short that even the discussions of some grammar points do not fully describe proper usage.  

So why is this work considered a classic? The book was based on a pamphlet prepared by a master English teacher for his college freshmen and later revised by a master essayist. It was one of the first reference books to distil the basics of good writing into an accessible and inexpensive format. Nevertheless, this book is only useful for someone looking for a fast answer to an elementary question.   

The current version is available and searchable online (http://www.bartleby.com). For the grammar historians among us, Strunk’s original essay (1918) predating the first edition is also available online (http://sut1.sut.ac.th/strunk).  

6. Hacker, Diana. A Writer’s Reference, 5th ed. (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003).  

As many of you know from reading this column, this is my favorite college English handbook. It’s contemporary, practical, easy to use, and written by a practicing college English teacher. This useful handbook even has a companion website, where you will find language debates, additional resources, grammar exercises, writing exercises, model papers, and helpful links to other language resources.  

7. The American Heritage Book of English Usage (Houghton Mifflin, 1996).

This compact and authoritative guide to contemporary English usage has become an invaluable resource for resolving office grammar debates. Its unique approach by subject (grammar, style, word choice, gender, names and labels, etc.) allows an in-depth and an occasionally historical look at issues and provides guidance that is contemporary. Often the focus is not on the grammatically perfect construction, but rather on a broader notion of what is appropriate for a given purpose, a different audience, or a different time. 

8. Garner, Bryan A. Garner’s Modern American Usage (Oxford University Press, 2003).

Hailed as the “American Fowler” by many, Garner has produced an authoritative and scholarly reference. This work acknowledges and addresses the evolving nature of language, drawing many examples from newspaper journalism as an indicator of contemporary usage. Many of the entries are essays that examine larger questions of usage and style. In the preface to the first edition of this work, Garner elegantly states his philosophy:

      The reality I care about most is that some people still want to use the language well. They want to write effectively; they want to speak effectively. They want their language to be graceful at times and powerful at times. They want to understand how to use words well, how to manipulate sentences, and how to move about in the language without seeming to fail. They want good grammar, but they want more: they want rhetoric in the traditional sense. That is, they want to use language deftly so that it’s fit for their purposes.

These titles represent a small fraction of the many excellent resources currently available in print as well as in electronic format. If you are trying to resolve a troublesome grammatical issue or find an authority whose view closely parallels your own, then perhaps a few of these reference books will do the trick. If you wish to develop an intuition for good writing, however, then it’s essential that you not only study good writing, but also practice writing as well. You can become the next Grammar Goddess!

Do you have a grammar question? Comments? Suggestions? Please let me know.