Here’s where I share some thoughts about books I’ve read–some relevant to the subject of this blog, some more broadly about language and writing, and some that I just happened to have enjoyed.
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Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Grammar and Style, by Benjamin Dreyer. Dreyer, the copy chief at Random House, is a witty and amusing writer, as in the mock-boastful title to this book, which is a combination memoir, style manual, and general guide to writing. I reviewed it positively for the Wall Street Journal, but was frankly surprised to see the amazing success the book had after publication; at one point, it was number 2 on Amazon’s best-seller list, behind only Michelle Obama’s autobiography. All in all, definitely a good thing that masses of people are interested in the niceties of prose.
When people ask me to recommend a book covering the various issues of correctness and style that come up in writing, I generally recommend Bryan Garner’s reference book, which has had various titles in its various editions over the years and is now called (in homage to H.W. Fowler’s 1925 classic, Modern English Usage), Garner’s Modern English Usage. Garner is sensible and well-informed and, in his comprehensiveness, far more useful than limited and inexplicably popular Elements of Style, by Strunk and White. Opening up a couple of pages of Garner at random, I see a useful entries on the distinction between “further” and “farther” and the move from “was graduated from college” to “graduated from college” to “graduated college.” On the whole, Garner tends to the conservative/“prescriptivist” side, while another excellent book, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, is more forgiving and “descriptivist,” always ready to cite historical examples of the long life of “hopefully” as a sentence adverb, or give an example of how Jane Austen and Henry James used singular “they.” Unfortunately, MWDEU is out of print, but copies are usually available at Amazon for a reasonable price.
Mary Norris was a copy editor at The New Yorker for many years, and in Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, she unlocks some of the stylistic mysteries of that great magazine, and combines a bit of memoir. It’s all entertaining and readable, and greatly enjoyable for word people.
And speaking of relevant books, the most relevant one is Lynne Murphy’s The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English. Lynne was born in the U.S. and is now a professor of linguistics in England, which are some of her qualifications for being the foremost authority on the differences between American and British English. She has covered these differences for well over a decade on her blog, Separated by a Common Language, and now in this excellent book.