The Old Editor wants you to own, and consult, books

Each week The Old Editor will attempt to address your entreaties for information and advice on grammar and usage, writing, writer-editor etiquette, and related subjects.

The Old Editor does not address marital and relationship matters, dietary questions, or automobile mechanics.


The Question: Excerpts from a fan letter:

You've inspired me to perfect my prose and appreciate the complexities of what I think is one of the most beautiful languages ever to exist. In that respect, may I suggest you post a few recommendations on your favorite dictionaries? It may help those like me achieve a better sense of usage and style.


Though I know you are not a prescriptivist and encourage readers to consult multiple sources, it appears you like to quote the following dictionaries and language guides:

Fowler's Modern English Usage

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage

Are there any others you recommend? I am building a small library for my little son in the hope that one day he will understand the value of his native tongue, let alone write in a way that many among the young seem incapable of these days.

The Old Editor answers: We'll start with dictionaries. What you use will depend on your purposes.

The Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, both online, for a fee, are comprehensive, with a wealth of historical information. For most purposes, an abridged desk dictionary suffices. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (or Merriam-Webster online) is standard for academic and general uses. Webster's New World College Dictionary, recently released in its fifth edition, is commonly used by newspapers and the Associated Press. I have a weakness for The American Heritage Dictionary, which is a little large for a desk dictionary, but well made and supplied with very useful usage notes.

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage and Garner's Modern American Usage (third edition) are the texts I most frequently consult for usage, and I think that any serious editor, at least in the United States, ought to own both. Garner's is more prescriptive than MWDEU, but both are informed by evidence rather than dogma.

The original Fowler's can be delightfully quirky, but it is British and dated. I have Sir Ernest Gowers's second edition and R.W. Burchfield's third, but do not find frequent occasion to consult them. There is a fourth edition edited by Jeremy Butterfield that I have not yet seen.

I enjoy Bill Walsh's ruminations on usage in Lapsing into a Comma, The Elephants of Style, and Yes, I Could Care Less, though he and I have differed occasionally. Older manuals of usage, such as John Bremner's Words on Words and Theodore Bernstein's Careful Writer, can be tricky, offering dated advice.

The Chicago Manual of Style is the bible of book and academic publishing, the Associated Press Stylebook (which could stand a thorough working-over) for most American newspapers. The Guardian and Observer style guide online is informative about British usage.

Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric, a beautiful book, has the traditional tropes, with ample examples. You cannot know too many tropes.


Katharine O'Moore-Klopf has assembled a formidable list of online resources for editors which is well worth a bookmark.

And if you wish to increase your understanding of language in general, and stock up with reading for the long winter ahead, let me commend, Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct, John McWhorter's What Language Is and The Power of Babel, Robert Lane Greene's You Are What You Speak, Jack Lynch's The Lexicographer's Dilemma, David Skinner's The Story of Ain't, and Henry Hitchings's The Secret Life of Words and The Language Wars.

By God, I might return to them myself.

Got a question for The Old Editor? Write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com. Your name will not be used unless you specifically authorize it.

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