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Books on English Usage and Related Matters

Mark Halpern sent this list of general books for technical editors.

H. W. Fowler, Modern English Usage. Oxford U.P., 1926, 1965, 1996.
Modern English Usage is the first and in many ways the best book of its kind ever written: a guidebook to good usage that springs from one man's mature and cultivated judgment. Fowler has no qualms whatever about making judgments, and he also makes the principles on which his judgments are based clear. He has a great deal of learning, and adds to his erudition something even more unusual, an understanding of when learning is relevant. To this he adds an ability to capture and illustrate distinctions with such lucidity that the reader, with Fowler as guide, never loses his way, even when traversing thickets of the most turgid prose. The book was an instant success, and has been in print ever since it first appeared.
The second edition (1965) is a revision by Sir Ernest Gowers, who understood the nature of the book, used a very light hand, and added a 'Classified Guide' that makes it more useable as a reference work. The third edition (1996) purports to be a further revision by Robert Burchfield, but is actually a marked departure from the spirit of the original; Burchfield does not understand the nature of the book, and has vandalized it. (This opinion is so widespread that Oxford has, in what I think is an unprecedented step, kept the second edition in print alongside the third.)
Modern English Usage (sometimes abbreviated as MEU, which is ugly, but correctly suggests that it is the cat's meow) has value as a reference work, but it is primarily a specimen of the 'literature of power,' not the 'literature of knowledge.' Reading it will teach you many useful facts, but that is only incidental; the chief benefit to be derived is that of being trained to read with great care, to understand the root cause of many errors, and to express yourself with more grace and precision. It is also sharp, witty, and a pleasure to read. Those who enjoy this, Fowler's masterpiece, will also enjoy and profit from the earlier The King's English, which he wrote with his brother F. G. Fowler; it is not as highly polished a gem as MEU, but is still very much worth reading and having on one's shelf for consultation. The King's English, too, has gone into a third edition -- in this case, a genuine updating by the authors -- and both it and MEU are available in paperback.

To buy the second edition (reprinted 1983)

Robert Graves & Alan Hodge, The Reader Over Your Shoulder. Macmillan, 1944.
Most later editions of this book, hardbound and paperback, are to be avoided; they do not represent revisions by the authors, but are simply abridgments that lack much of the value of the original (the full text comprises 446 pages). The book is in three parts (logically, that is; the authors present it in two): the first is a capsule history of the English language, with a discussion of how it differs from other languages, and what this difference means. The second part is a reduction of the authors' experience into 25 'Principles of Clear Statement' and 16 'Principles of the Grace of Prose.' The third part is the great novelty of the book: the authors apply the principles they have just laid down to the work of a number of well-known writers and public figures, showing in close detail what is wrong with the passages quoted, and how the application of their principles improves them. The book is particularly useful to editors, but should be read by everyone who cares about writing well. It is itself a model of graceful and lucid writing.

This book is currently out of print.

Mary-Claire van Leunen, A Handbook for Scholars. Knopf, 1978.
This book is well described on its front cover: "A complete guide to the mechanics of scholarly writing: citation, references, footnotes, bibliographies, format, styling, text preparation, and all related matters." Offers reasoned answers to hundreds of niggling little questions that come up when a complex document is being written and prepared for printing. Covers matters that no other book known to me covers, and does so with great common sense and occasional wit. A second edition has since appeared, supposedly updating the book to take the computer into account, but I can discover very little difference between the second and the first editions, except for the fact that the author has changed her mind about 'sexist language.'

To buy the second edition (1992)

Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style. Hartley & Marks, 1992, 1996.
A marvelous book about typography, typographers, and the appearance of the printed page. The author describes (and exhibits, of course) a great number of type faces, pointing out the character of each, and suggesting what they bring to the text they bear. He gives mini-biographies of a number of important typographers, and an overview of typographical history. He lists, names, and discusses virtually every character, symbol, and diacritical mark that can be found in print. He is a poet, and writes like one.

To buy this book

Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage: A Guide. Hill and Wang, 1966.
This book, which deserves and survives the comparison with Fowler that its title invites, was two-thirds finished when Follett died. It was "edited and completed" by Jacques Barzun, with the aid of a group of distinguished teachers and writers. It is written in Fowler's spirit -- that of a practiced writer and reader who wants clarity and grace, and has no hesitation in accepting change, where change is warranted by those criteria, or in rejecting change, where it is not.
It is easier to use as a quick reference than Fowler, even Fowler as augmented by Gowers, and it has for Americans the advantage of being, as its name indicates, written more for this side of the Atlantic. It opens with an extended essay on why grammar matters, and what rules are good for, that is a model of good sense; if you have ever asked these questions, Follett will answer them for you.

To buy the revised edition (1998, with Erik Wensberg)

Eric Partridge, Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. New York: Macmillan, 1958.
Origins is, so far as I know, the only English etymological dictionary that can be both consulted and read. Partridge had the good idea of giving etymologies in related clusters or families, rather than in the usual dictionary-like arrangement, in which one word at a time is dealt with, in its alphabetic place, and connected to its kinsmen and cognates by elaborate and tiresome cross-references. So the typical entry in Origins is a miniature essay that recognizes that if you want to know the etymology of pluvial, you probably also want to know that of Jupiter Pluvius, and will be best served if both -- along with that of plover, which you may not have realized was related to them -- are presented to you in one place, rather than as successive steps in a paper chase. The readability and usability of the book have not been purchased at the cost of scholarly dependability; the book is respected by the most severe academic etymologists, who are probably kicking themselves for not having thought of its format themselves. (Note that the "Short" in the book's subtitle means merely "not utterly exhaustive"; the book is 970 pages long.) And Partridge, who has also written a well-received guide to usage (Usage and Abusage), is as a writer free of the typical academic's waffling.

To buy this book

Jacques Barzun, A Word or Two Before You Go.... Wesleyan University Press, 1986.
Jacques Barzun has been thinking and publishing about writing, editing, teaching, scholarship, and the intellectual life generally for about three-quarters of a century now.
Besides such books as On Writing, Editing, and Publishing The University of Chicago Press, 1971, 1986) and the collection of short essays named above, he has contributed many articles on these subjects to such periodicals as The American Scholar, The Atlantic Monthly, and Harper's. And a substantial part of Follett's Modern American Usage, listed earlier, is actually his, Follett having died before completing the book.
A Word or Two Before You Go... includes a selected bibliography of his many writings on language usage up to 1986; but he has continued to write since then, and is currently engaged in writing a cultural history of the last 500 years.

This book is currently out of print.

Bergen and Cornelia Evans, A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage. New York: Random House, 1957.
This is a sensible and usable guide to the subject. The Evanses (brother and sister), like the brothers Fowler, take a position that is not based on a desire to welcome change as such, nor a desire to resist change as such, but rather on a desire to make the language a useful and graceful tool for communicating what we mean. Despite its age -- it has not been revised since its original appearance -- it is still useful as a reference on particular points, and even more so as an exemplar of the right attitudes and principles to bring to the writing and editing task. 567 pages.

This book is currently out of print.