Does your grammar needs updating?
Native speakers tend to fall into two grammar camps: first, those who “hate it/can’t be bothered” and those who “love it/can’t get enough.” Oddly enough, it doesn’t matter which category you belong to, your writing needs to stay up-to-date. These grammar resources can help.
The fact is, if you want a good job, you need to have impeccable grammar. This is especially true if you are working with print or web content. It holds true for corporate jobs, professional offices, and for freelancers. You might be the best web designer on the planet, but if you have a lot of misspelled words or punctuation errors, or worse yet, ungrammatical constructions, you can kiss some of your prospective clients goodbye. Whether it’s fair or not–that’s the way it is.
So while “hate it/can’t be bothered” may have been fine in high school (as long as you did well enough to graduate), it’s not okay as an adult.
While a sizable number of people fall into the first category, there are a fair number in the second as well. For these folks, there was something satisfying about correcting sentences on grammar worksheets, editing friends’ papers, and diagramming sentences in school. People like these tend to go on to become English majors in college and then teach school or maybe edit. Some of them put snarky grammar memes on Facebook. You know the type.
But while those of you who fall into this category may have made excellent grades in school and do the white paper drafting and newsletters at current jobs, if you haven’t had a grammar class in the last twenty years, chances are, you need to update your grammar knowledge. After all, you don’t want to call someone out over a faux pas that’s no longer considered a mistake by those in the know.
Language is a tool of living beings and in that sense, it’s alive. People don’t follow rules all the time; they improvise; and they are creative. Besides that, the world changes. Twenty years ago, if you mentioned a browser, people thought of someone absent-mindedly looking through the merchandise in stores. Today if you say the word browser, most immediately think of Google Chrome or Firefox.
This leads to another issue with language, one that makes grammar devotees turn purple with rage at times. There are two grammar camps: descriptivist or prescriptivist.
Descriptivists describe language exactly as they find it spoken or written among ordinary people. They make no attempt to judge the usage of a word or a grammatical structure as correct or incorrect. Many people are surprised to learn that most dictionaries are not published to tell people how to use words. Instead, they report how words are being used.
For instance, let’s say a bunch of teenagers in Santa Fe are using the word “boomerang” to refer to drinking so much beer that it returns from whence it came (aka upchuck, toss cookies, vomit, etc.). After a while “boomerang” spreads to neighboring hamlets, villages, cities, and states. Once it becomes common enough, that definition of the word will be reported in a standard dictionary.
This sort of thing makes some people, referred to a prescriptivists, very angry indeed. For prescriptivists, language is either right or wrong. There are rules that must be followed. English teachers, I have found, tend not to appreciate the humor of having perfectly usable words mucked-up simply to provide color. They appreciate even less the tendency of people to play fast and loose with grammar rules. For example, they would not appreciate this sentence: “It is not alright to make mistakes like this.”
And while it is easy for descriptivists to sit back and make fun of prescriptivists for having thumbs up their own posteriors, the fact is, in academia and business, it does matter if people don’t use standard English. So it turns out that English teachers do care about their students after all. And if you’re writing something important, but don’t have time to check all the rules, consider that you may need an editor.
So we’ve established that there is a need to keep up with language changes. How is a person who is no longer in school to manage that?
You’re busy. But a little bit of preparation can keep you from embarrassing yourself, or worse, embarrassing your boss when it comes to the things you write.
It makes sense to have at least one current grammar handbook at the ready and check it before you publish something you’re unsure about. (Hey, it’s okay to end sentences with prepositions!)
Grammar commentary and news
It’s also a good idea to keep grammar-related websites in a folder labeled “Reference” or whatever synonym makes more sense to you. I keep a “TBR” (for “to be read”) folder for blogs I like to check occasionally. When I have spare time, I open it up and see what sorts of interesting information I find. I’m seldom disappointed. Grammar blogs can be fascinating reading.
Hundreds of grammar books have been written through the years. I kept a copy of my Harbrace College Handbook (8th ed.) for years. It was on the shelf right beside my dog-eared copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.
For more than thirty years after graduating from my undergraduate program, I had vague notions that grammar doesn’t change. I overheard one of my idols, an English professor at James Madison University (my alma mater) arguing with one of my fellow students: “Yes, yes, I get it…you have the right TO BOLDLY SPLIT INFINITIVES where no man has split infinitives before! No! Some of us CARE about the English language!”
Turns out he was wrong about the infinitives. According to Garner’s Modern English Usage, split infinitives have been used for quite some time. And while they’re not always advisable, there are times when they are preferred.
And that’s the problem, some of the things we were taught in school decades ago were wrong to begin with. And when you understand how things change, you start to see the problem.
On the internet people still recommend Strunk and White to people who ask for books on how to write. While some of their rules are good ones (get rid of needless words is always good advice), some of their admonishments are simply wrong. Don’t believe me? Check out “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,” by Geoffrey K. Pullum, the head of linguistics and English language at the University of Edinburgh.
In my edition of Strunk and White, “he” was specified as perfectly correct for referring to any person whose gender was unknown. “A student should always check his grammar guide before writing,” was always considered correct. But while it still rankles a few souls, the use of the singular “they” is becoming more common. “I instructed each student to get out their notebook.”
So, with those caveats out of the way, here is my list of recommended books:
Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer’s Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears, and Outmoded Rules of the English Language by Theodore Bernstein. This book is almost fifty years old. However, some of the rules it addresses are still believed to be sacrosanct by many. And it is an entertaining read. Bernstein was an assistant managing editor of The New York Times.
The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation by Bryan Garner. One of my idols, Garner leans toward the prescriptivist side of the grammar debate, but he is not inflexible. He knows what he is talking about and everything he does is impeccably researched. He wrote the grammar section for The Chicago Manual of Style afterall. This would be a good choice for any professional writer or editor.
- The McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage, 2nd ed. by Mark Lester and Larry Beason. Really, if I only needed one book to refer to on occasion, this inexpensive book would be it. It just gives the basic rules in an easy-to-understand and entertaining way.
Webster’s New World English Grammar Handbook, 2nd ed. by Gordon Leberger and Kate Shoup. This makes a great desk reference for those who want to double-check for correctness. It has lists of grammar rules and writing tips and was written for students and professionals who do not work primarily with writing.
Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, 3rd. ed. by Patricia T. O’Conner. The author was a former editor of the New York Times Book Review and she doesn’t just tell you what needs to be done, she takes time to explain why. One reviewer said reading this book is like “chatting about the nuances of grammar over a morning cup of coffee and a warm cinnamon roll.”
Keep these bookmarked in a references folder. Please let me know if you are aware of sites that may be helpful to add here. I only went with a few that were grammar-related. I don’t know of a lot of free sites that explain the mechanics of grammar in great detail.
- Guide to Grammar and Writing. This site looks dated, but it is an excellent resource for explaining all the facets of English grammar.
- Common Errors in English Usage. This was the website of now retired professor, Paul Brians of Washington State University.
- OneLook Dictionary Search. Some dictionaries are more reputable than others. This site lets you compare definitions from more than one hundred dictionaries in one spot.
Blogs and podcasts
Bookmark in a “To Be Read” folder and dive in when you have time. These are not great for finding the answers to questions. They are great at alerting you to recent trends and debates in the English Language. Frequently dipping into them will make you pay attention to issues you may otherwise ignore.
NOTE: Some of these are no longer active. But they are so useful or delightful, I put them here anyway for those who may be unfamiliar with them. They are still useful.
- Arrant Pedantry. Blog of Jonathan Owen, a linguist (with a masters degree from Brigham Young University), editor, writer, and book designer. He links to most of the blogs below.
- Ask Copy Curmudgeon: About grammar, usage, style, writing, and editing. This was the site of Bill Walsh who was a copy editor for the Washington Post, and the author of several books, among them Lapsing into a Comma. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2017, but his wit and observations are still here to entertain and enlighten.
- Bridging the Unbridgeable. This is a usage site which calls itself “a project for English usage guides.”
- CMOS Shop Talk. This is the blog of the esteemed and mightily-used Chicago Manual of Style. Personally, I need to go back and read every one of these posts. As of this writing, the most recent post discusses using a comma with “too and “either.”
- Daily Writing Tips. This one is not specifically on grammar and language. But it’s practical, helpful, and I like it!
- Grammar Girl. Most everyone knows Mignon Fogarty (aka Grammar Girl). Her “Quick and Dirty Tips” are sure to educate. If nothing else, her “Top 10 Grammar Myths” should be on your radar.
- Harmless Drudgery. Okay, this one isn’t just on grammar either, but Kory Stamper’s experiences as a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, make for fascinating reading on the subject of language and the prescriptivist vs. descriptivist debate.
- Lexicon Valley. Slate’s podcasts about language.
- Literal Minded: Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally. I put this up here because it’s so much fun to read!
- Motivated Grammar; Prescriptivism Must Die! Written by a graduate student in linguistics, this site has lots of nice, long lists of commentary.
- Subversive Copy Editor. Carol Fisher Saller is a long-time editor at the University of Chicago Press. She is also one of my idols. She discusses matters related to editing, but those frequently involve grammar questions. Did I mention that she’s funny?
- The Writing Resource. This site has no updates since 2017. However, there are lots of goodies to devour that still remain posted.
- Talk the Talk. A weekly podcast about linguistics.
- Throw Grammar from the Train. Boston Globe weekly columnist (“The Word”), Jan Freeman wrote here until August 2019. It’s entertaining and worth a read.
- You Don’t Say. Titled after his column in The Baltimore Sun, John McIntyre is on point (hip-hop style).
Time to explore!
So now that you know where to find your information, it’s time to find a book and start reading columns. Do you belong to either the descriptivist or a prescriptionist tribe?
Also check out all the other goodies these bloggers and podcasters recommend. If you know of other helpful sites, please send me a message below.
Contact Library Lin
Have a comment or question about my services?