The following books are recommended texts for English style, usage, and grammar reference. No one book is meant to be ranked above the others here, and a decision to buy might be based on financial considerations as well as thoroughness. They are simply listed in the order in which Grammar English grabs a book off the shelf and that can depend on the question being asked.
It is surely wise to browse through these books in the reference section of your library (or to spend a lot of time sprawled on the floor of your favorite bookshop) before deciding to buy. If the bookstore of a local college carries used books or has a remainder table or clearance sale, you might be able to pick up a good handbook for college composition classes for a few dollars, considerably less than the $35 or more you would spend on a new copy of the Chicago Manual of Style. Most of these books, sometimes in earlier editions, are probably available in the reference section of used bookshops but you wouldn't want an earlier edition if you want the latest conventions for research paper writing. Some grammar handbooks will only give you the rules of writing, without a great deal of explanation; a book like Kolln's (relatively easy to understand) or Klammer's (for the advanced college student), on the other hand, will immerse the reader in a thorough understanding of how those rules came to be. Some of them, like Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves and Gordon's Torn Wings and Faux Pas, are informative and great fun at the same time.
The New Fowler's Modern English Usage edited by R.W. Burchfield. Clarendon Press: Oxford. 1996.
This book is surprisingly useful, but it takes some time to get used to having everything alphabetized (there is no index). Once you get used to how things are arranged, though, it's amazing what you can find. Burchfield does a great job of catching, documenting, and explaining differences between British and American English, between formal prose and casual writing. (864 pages)
The Gregg Reference Manual by William A. Sabin. 9th ed. McGraw-Hill: New York. 2001.
Sabin does a thorough job of distinguishing between the essential principles of writing and the nitty-gritty details. The book is easy to use and quite readable considering how much information is packed into it; the index contains over 2500 entries (referring the user to numbered paragraphs and to pages). The spiral binding allows the book to sit flat on your desktop. GRM contains advice on altering templates in today's software packages (for stationery, etc.) to individual needs. The introductory essays on writing should be required reading. (610 big pages)
Garner's Modern American Usage by Bryan Garner. Oxford University Press: New York, 2003.
Arranged as a dictionary, and surely as indispensable as one for writers who care about (and like to argue about) correct English usage. Garner does a great job of citing resources for his judgments and pointing to lively examples of good and bad writing. Some nice surprises! Be prepared to find errors that Garner has discovered in the text of William Safire, R.W. Burchfield, and other grammar illuminati. (879 pages)
Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. Merriam-Webster: Springfield, Massachusetts, 1994.
Extremely helpful and easy to use and nicely cross-referenced. This might be the most thorough usage book in terms of citation of evidence, reaching back, as it does, into a word or phrase's historical context. (There are over 23,000 illustrative quotations!) This book is also, often, quite fun to read, as the editor's tone is sometimes sprightly, invariably mordant, sometimes even caustic, especially when dealing with newspaper and academic writers. (978 tightly packed pages)
A University Grammar of English by Randolph Quirk and Sidney Greenbaum. Longman Group: Essex, England. 1993.
This text is for the serious student of English grammar. The index is very good and the text thorough. The editors do a good job of distinguishing between what is formally and informally acceptable. (484 pages)
A Grammar of Contemporary English by Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik. Longman Group: London. 1978.
This is the big brother 1120 pages! of the University Grammar (above). There may be grammatical issues that the editors haven't touched upon, but I haven't found them yet. The index is very helpful! This text is out of print, but you might be able to find it in the reference section of a used bookshop. Not for the faint of heart or bleary of eye.
The American Heritage Book of English Usage. Houghton Mifflin Co.: Boston, 1996.
Cleverly divided into sections devoted to grammar, word choice, pronunciation, social labels, gender issues, scientific terms, and electronic communication. (This division of labor takes a while to get used to.) Usage notes are based on consultation with the same usage panel consulted for the famous American Heritage Dictionary. (290 pages)
The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage Theodore Bernstein. The Free Press: New York. 1993.
These two books are similar in intent and design (topics arranged alphabetically) to Burchfield's New Fowler's, but neither one is nearly as scholarly or grand in scope as the Oxford book. On the other hand, its liberal analysis and advice (based primarily on Bernstein's experience as New York Times editor) makes for lively reading. Why these two books have not been combined into one text is a great mystery (there are many instances of overlapping)other than the obvious reason that one now has to purchase two books instead of one. If you have to choose between them, go with The Careful Writer. (487 & 250 pages, respectively)
The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage. Allan M. Siegal and William G. Connolly. Times Books (Random House): New York, 1999.
Alphabetized. Occasionally aimed at a New York writer's audience, but useful, too, for a much wider population. This manual doesn't spend a lot of time explaining or citing authorities or examples; it just tells how words and phrases ought to be used, and for that reason there's a lot of information packed within its pages. The hardbound version is rather pricey ($30), but that's what you'll want. Watch for it in online used bookstores. (367 pages)
Modern American Usage: A Guide by Wilson Follett, revised by Erik Wensberg. Hill & Wang: New York, 1998.
Pay careful attention to the "lexicon" in the first few pages of this book, so you can get a sense of how things are arranged before delving into it. The little essays on usage sprinkled liberally throughout the text are eminently sensible and readable. Entries are carefully cross-referenced and lead the reader from one happy discovery to another. (362 pages)
Lapsing into a Comma by Bill Walsh. Contemporary Books: New York, 2000.
Curmudgeonly and friendly at the same time. Particularly helpful for writers employed by newspapers, as Walsh is the copy editor for the business section of the Washington Post. The book is about half style book, arranged as a dictionary, and half brief essays addressed to style and usage questions. Many interesting sidebars presented. (246 pages)
New York Public Library Writer's Guide to Style and Usage HarperCollins: New York. 1994.
A surprisingly readable text, and very useful for the common reader/writer. Dozens of fascinating "side-bars" explain peculiarities of English usage and are a pleasant diversion. The information on publication is probably good enough for the amateur, but the professional writer probably needs the CMOS. Not the best index in the world. (838 pages)
The Penguin Dictionary of American English Usage and Style by Paul W. Lovinger. Penguin Reference: New York. 2000.
Alphabetized entries. Lively examples, but the editors seem to want you to mull over examples of bad writing before they tell you what's wrong with it. The book is typographically a mess (compared, say, to Garner's). (491 pages)
Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words by Bill Bryson. Broadway Books: New York. 2000.
Alphabetized entries. This book concentrates primarily on confusable words and goes to extremes to find them: androgenous versus androgynous, expectorate versus spit. But there are usage and style entries of greater moment, too. A lively and readable text. (241 pages)
The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories edited by Gynnis Chantrell. Oxford University Press: New York. 2000.
Note that this is not a book on usage, although discovering the source of a word or phrase often gives important clues to how that bit of language should be used. This dictionary cites the first usage of thousands of "core words" in addition to words that that are just plain interesting. (560 pages)
The Columbia Guide to Standard American Usage by Kenneth G. Wilson. MJF Books: New York. 1993.
Alphabetized entries. Wilson does a thorough and scholarly job of distinguishing among the levels of American usage in both written (formal [or edited], semiformal, and informal) and spoken language (oratorical, planned, impromptu, casual, and intimate). You have to get used to what these distinctions mean (by using the book for a while) before it becomes that useful to you. (482 pages)
Chicago Manual of Style 14th ed. U of Chicago P: Chicago. 1993.
This is worth owning for the chapters on hyphens, abbreviations, and word-division alone. Tables upon tables of information. Nicely and thoroughly indexed, but not the kind of thing you want to pick up and read on a summer afternoon. The guidelines for publication (for articles and books) go into every conceivable detail. (921 pages)
Understanding English Grammar by Martha Kolln. 4rth Edition. MacMillan Publishing Company: New York. 1994.
As grammar books go, Kolln's book is heavy on description, light on prescription. She uses diagramming, which many readers, especially visual learners and older folks who built sentence diagrams back in the good old days, will find refreshing. (496 pages)
Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects by Martha Kolln. 3rd Edition. Allyn and Bacon: Boston. 1996.
This is an excellent book. It makes interesting connections between the choices we make in sentence structures (with an especially useful chapter on long and short sentences) and the EFFECT of those structures on our prose. It even describes nicely the effect of various punctuation choices we make. This book does not use the diagramming of Kolln's earlier text (see above). There are innumerable exercises for practice, with answers in the back. (295 pages)
Elements of Style by William Strunk, E.B. White. 4th ed. Allyn & Bacon: New York. 1995.
The word people attach to this book is venerable; some people might use overbearing, instead. The book is tiny, compared to its behemoth brothers listed on this page, but its chapter on concise writing is worth volumes (there's a paradox for you!). There are millions of copies of this book in circulation, and you might be able to pick up Elements of Style for a couple of dollars in a used bookstore. (78 pages in the original paperback, now up to 105 with new prefatory material, but the price is also five times the $1.25 I paid for my second edition!)
Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams. 3rd Edition. Scott, Foresman & Company: Glenview, Illinois. 1981.
This little volume is not really a grammar book; it is, as the title says, a book on style, the "last acquirement of the educated mind" (Whitehead called it) writing with clarity, grace, variety, and energy. And it's a very stylishly written book, eminently readable. Take this one slow and let its ten lessons (sounds liturgical) seep in over time. (240 pages)
Torn Wings and Faux Pas: a Flashbook of Style, a Beastly Guide Through the Writer's Labyrinth by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. Pantheon Books: New York. 1997.
This is a delight to peruse all at once or a bit at a time. This is Gordon's explanation of the word "console" (in contrast to "condole"):
Nothing I tried seemed to assuage his sufferings: I utterly failed to console him. I enjoined his friends to deluge him with frivolous gifts, tender notes, lascivious suggestions, to kiss his knuckles and pat his shoulder, but all was to no avail, and we finally abandoned Count Ghastly to his dirge and oversized hankies, his moues and self-flagellations.
The pages of this book are inhabited by Rikki Ducornet's amusing gothic sketches of gargoyles and assorted literary monsters. (204 pages)
Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynn Truss. Gotham Books (Penguin): New York, 2003.
People in England went nuts over this book it actually became a bestseller and now (April 2004), it's easily available in the U.S. This is not a handbook, and the actual practical advice you get out of it could be boiled down to a few pages. But you'll also get an abundance of information about the history and wherefores of our punctuation system. One could wish for an American edition of this book, as there are plenty of differences between British and American punctuation systems that could confuse readers of this very British book and while the publishers are at it, they might correct the lack of a hyphen after "Zero" in the title "The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation." Truss is wickedly funny, and this book about punctuation is a delight to read, especially the beginning chapters (it gets a bit long-winded toward the dash and hyphen). Sticklers for proper form are known for their self-righteousness and now they'll be more righteous than ever. (209 pages)
Sentence Sense: A Writer's Guide. by Evelyn Farbman. Houghton Mifflin: Boston. 1989.
A great program for the developmental writer, with nearly 200 applications for testing one's knowledge as one goes along. An online, interactive format of this text is available from Capital Community College at http://www.ccc.commnet.edu/sensen/.
The Oxford Guide to English Language, edited by E.S.C. Weiner. Oxford University Press: New York, 1983.
Most useful for its section on word formation. Buy this one in an online used bookstsore. (238 pages)
A Grammar Book for You and I . . . Oops, Me! by C. Edward Good. Capital Books: Sterling, Virginia. 2002.
A serious book that doesn't take itself too seriously. A good, sound introduction to traditional ways of talking about sentence structure, leading from identification of basic parts and functions to matters of style. (430 pages)
Analyzing English Grammar Thomas Klammer & Muriel Schulz. 2nd Edition. Allyn & Bacon: Needham, Massachusetts. 1996. (462 pages)
For advanced students of English grammar. Uses diagramming.
MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers 5th ed. by Joseph Gibaldi. Modern Language Association of America: New York. 1999.
For writers of research papers. This is not the style book, which is a separate publication. Check with your instructor or academic department office before using either this or the APA manual, listed next. (331 pages)
Publication Manual of the American Psychological Assocation American Psychological Association. 4th ed. American Psychological Association: New York. 1994.
For writers of research papers. (368 pages)
The Longman Handbook for Writers and Readers by Chris M. Anson and Robert A. Schwegler. Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.: New York. 1997.
The St. Martin's Handbook by Andrea Lunsford, Robert Connors. 2nd ed. St. Martin's Press: New York. 1992.
The Little, Brown Handbook by H. Ramsay Fowler and Jane E. Aaron, & Kay Limburg. 6th ed. HarperCollins: New York. 1995.
Keys for Writers: A Brief Handbook by Ann Raimes. Houghton Mifflin: New York. 1996.
Quick Access: Reference for Writers by Lynn Quitman Troyka. Simon & Schuster: New York. 1995.
The Scott, Foresman Handbook for Writers by Maxine Hairston & John J. Ruszkiewicz. HarperCollins: New York. 1996.
Student's Book of College English by David Skwire and Harvey S. Wiener. 6th ed. MacMillan: New York. 1992.
Strategies for Successful Writing by James A. Reinking, James W. Hart, & Robert van der Osten. Prentice Hall: New York. 1993.
The Complete Stylist by Sheridan Baker. HarperCollins: New York. 1984.
Clear and Coherent Prose: A Functional Approach by William Vande Kopple. Scott, Foresman & Company: Glenview, Illinois. 1989.
Word Smart: Building an Educated Vocabulary by Adam Robinson (and the staff of The Princeton Review). Villard Books: New York.1992.