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