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Grammar books as Christmas presents (stay with me, I’m not kidding)

December 17, 2009

E.B. White

Well, not really grammar books, but books on English language usage, which can not only be invaluable but also (I swear to God) fun. A fine essay on H.W. Fowler in The New York Times inspires me to ask: What usage books have you found most, er, useful?

This is not a trivial question, even  as we race heedless into a bookless, paperless world. Until we’re all fitted with microchips that allow direct mind-to-mind communication (which Cormac McCarthy, in a rare chat with the Wall Street Journal, thinks will be less than 100 years), language will remain the fundamental medium between one person and another — or a billion.

And Mark Twain’s famous remark will still be relevant: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

And most of us as writers want to bring down lightning with our prose, right? But usage is more than writing. We think in words, too, we conceptualize our feelings (which is where the human being actually resides) in words, string those words together into sentences, and use those sentences to mediate not only with other people, but with ourselves.

Trying to find the right word, and cast our thoughts and feelings into good, strong language, is therefore also a way to teach ourselves how to think clearly.

The spark igniting this discussion is The Times essay by Jim Holt on H.W. Fowler, author of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, for many writers the most sacred of books and known to devotees as Fowler’s.  Holt gives the story of how Fowler–not a trained grammarian or lexicographer — came to write the book and why it holds such a place of imminence.

Fowler’s has not, however, been one of my principle usage guides, and no doubt I am the poorer for it. But I do have my few indispensable favorites. In fact, they are arrayed on the desk before me this very minute.

Roget’s International Thesaurus has by far been the volume to which I’ve turned most often and most profitably. The version I have is so old — I purchased it new in 1977 — that the publisher is “Harper & Row.”

Roget’s is much more than a synonym dictionary. In fact, any “Roget’s” that’s arranged alphabetically is spurious and to be avoided at all costs.

This book instead collates knowledge and the words relating to them in categories. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve gone searching for a synonym for a common term, only to find the original word did not mean quite what I thought it did. No book has challenged me the way this one has.

My second most valuable resource is The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Houghton Mifflin, 1979). I have in my possession a number of newer dictionaries, but this is the one I return to again and again.

Its definitions are beautifully concise yet thorough, but its boon lies in the etymolgies–brief descriptions of the history and development of each word. Do not waste your money on any dictionary that does not include word origins. Once I understand how a word arose and came to mean what it means today, it is much harder to misuse it (though not impossible, as regular readers of this blog no doubt can attest).

Finally, no writer — and I believe no speaker — of English should be without that charming little classic, The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White. It is very much a grammar usage guide, but not merely for the sake of propriety. Its true subject, as the title says, is “style.”

Strunk, who drafted the prescriptive grammar section, can be reduced to a single, timeless dictum: “Omit needless words!”

White, the great essayist and children’s author (Charlotte’s Web, among others), and a student of Strunk’s at Cornell, revised the text and added “An Approach to Style.” Among his many graceful recommendations, I am always most heartened by this simple one: “Write with nouns and verbs.”

I am certain many other great and handy books on English usage exist in this big world. If you have a favorite I’ve overlooked, by all means let me know.

And I’m not kidding about giving these and similar volumes as Christmas gifts. They may initially be met with a sneer, the way I used to receive the presents from a particularly practical aunt. But long after I was sated with the novelty of flashing ray guns or walkie-talkies, I still wore the underwear and socks.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. Tommy permalink
    December 17, 2009 4:05 pm

    The expansion of one’s vocabulary is of paramount importance. The part in 1984 that frightened me the most was the elimination and bastardization of words. Yet, years after reading this tale I had personally whittled my vocabulary down to as few words as possible. This lack of words made communicating difficult if not impossible.

    Two books that come to mind that are not strictly usage books, yet are fun and word lovers would enjoy are:

    “The Devil’s Dictionary” by Ambrose Bierce
    “What’s in a Name” by Eugene Ehrlich

    The absence of your blog yesterday was perplexing, glad your back.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    December 17, 2009 5:47 pm

    I had technical issues yesterday, Tommy, but thanks for missing the blog. I will be posting less, every other day or so, beginning Monday and for the duration of the holidays. Those are excellent suggestions. Let me add that anyone who likes good, mean-spirited fun might do themselves a favor by seeking out Ambrose Bierce’s short stories.

  3. Alexis permalink
    December 17, 2009 9:33 pm

    Haha, that is a very funny comment about the socks and underwear. i still have my Elements of Style some wise person once gave to me.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 18, 2009 1:37 am

      I hope you’ve read it, and I hope you have a good Roget’s, too. Although I suspect you do.

  4. December 17, 2009 10:30 pm

    Strunk and White got this high school dropout through college after he passed his GED in the Army. I still read White’s essays for the pleasure of words fully polished and ageless. Is there a better model? He’s so good he’s scary. But he makes you want to do better, even knowing you’ll never be White Jr or anything like the Master. Wonderful blog, Chauncey. Always good stuff here.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 18, 2009 1:39 am

      Thanks, Duff. One thing I dislike about writing for the Internet is the lack of time to polish and revise. But it takes me back to my early days writing two or three stories a day as a cub reporter for a minor city newspaper. I do enjoy the pace, I have to say, which I realize is a bit of a contradiction. But what you can do? Everything in life worth know or believing is a contradiction, don’t you think?

  5. December 18, 2009 11:50 am

    The book industry it self is a contradiction. People claim they want new and exciting work on all fronts but really are herded to only a few books buy large advertising campaigns. The industry controls the industry. Explore new work but do it after the old standards. I find it very interesting. Big is bad, but big is good. It is a comfort level we come to know as readers. Again I find it very interesting that we really do not explore that much. Just a toe in the water about uniqueness and exploring new types of literature.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 18, 2009 12:08 pm

      Don’t worry, John, the book industry looks like it’s about to go extinct, after which all authors will be self-published, and everyone will care even less about good usage than they do now.

  6. December 18, 2009 12:00 pm

    I love these books even if I do not always follow their advice. I thought Eats, Shoots and Leaves was a hoot. Oops, did I miss a comma?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 18, 2009 12:10 pm

      It’s always okay to go against standard usage — if you know what standard usage is and have a good reason. Case in point: As a young reader I was astonished at how cavalier the great writers of the mid-20th century (Flannery O’Connor, I’m talking about you, among others) were with their comma use. Which is to say, they didn’t use it much. And that strategy gave a tension to their sentences that I found both unsettling and pleasing.

  7. rachel permalink
    December 18, 2009 12:03 pm

    I like this idea for Christmas gifts.

    I have a copy of “Folwer’s” that somebody recently gave me but I have not really used it yet. This reminds me that I should crack it open. Sitting on top of my “Folwer’s” is a dictionary (obviously need a dictionary) and Roget’s Thesaurus. I completely agree about the thesaurus. When I had to go out alone in the world and therefore had to get my own Thesaurus I was dismayed that there were so many books that claimed the name, but were really just synonym dictionaries. That takes all of the fun and adventure out of it and at least a large part of the usefulness. I have to this date found no better tool than the thesaurus and when I first discovered it I was delighted and surprised that such a thing existed. And while I have used online ones before it just isn’t the same.

    Also: that lightning/lightning bug quote is one of my all time favorites.

    I love this picture of E.B. White. It seems to me that the person with the name of E.B. White could not look any other way than the that which the person in that photo looks. Perfect.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 18, 2009 12:12 pm

      I don’t know how any writer, thinker, or, indeed, human being, can possibly get buy without Roget. As for E.B. White, it strikes me that he looks very much like a thin Walt Disney.

  8. rachel permalink
    December 18, 2009 12:07 pm

    Additionally, not only extremely fun, but also educational and useful:

    “Wicked Words” by Hugh Rawson.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 18, 2009 12:12 pm

      Thanks for the suggestion. Wicked words, huh?

      • rachel permalink
        December 18, 2009 12:27 pm

        Yes, basically a very detailed and well researched dictionary of wicked, dirty, foul, curse, insulting words and their etymology.

  9. December 18, 2009 12:35 pm

    May be if profit becomes less of the driving instrument, authors and publishers will survive. If they do not need a godzillion dollars it could survive. Different but to survive.I know this is off the subject a bit but has some ramifications. Pepsi will not do ads at the super bowl. They will use the money on the internet to advertise. That is a very big message to media. A big change the news paper industry has already found out about.
    I see my small publishing company in business 10 years from now but doing it because I like to read, write and getting good work published. I may even have to go under ground. I am not giving up. I may like being a dingo. Great hours

  10. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    December 18, 2009 5:51 pm

    Dingo? Like the one that ate the baby?

  11. Elizabeth permalink
    December 22, 2009 2:56 pm

    I’d be curious to hear if anyone knows of any good pocket dictionaries out there. I recently bought one, because it was cheap and necessary, but I don’t think it’s the best, and it’s certainly too big to keep in my pocket at all times. Unfortunately pocket dictionaries seem to have been made at a time where pockets were much larger or there were a lot less words. Regardless, this pocket dictionary leaves my pockets frowning.

    One “word” book I enjoyed as a kid was Phantom Tollbooth. A must-have for any kid with a love for words.

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