Books on usage and abusage

Usage guides don’t define words as a dictionary does, and they don’t tell you how to capitalize words or where to put hyphens as a style manual does. Instead they explain the way we use words in English, and the subtle differences between certain words (e.g., affect and effect) that are often confused.

The Accidents of Styleby Charles Harrington Elster

Another book for those who love splitting hairs—and splitting infinitives. In other words, writers who care about nuance and can tell which false rules deserve to be flouted. Elster updates The Careful Writer (mentioned below), writing smartly about more than 350 other thorny usage questions.

Dictionary of Unendurable English: A Compendium of Mistakes in Grammar, Usage, and Spelling with commentary on lexicographers and linguists, by Robert Hartwell Fiske

Fiske is serious about words, and his dictionary will set you straight about misspelled or misused words. The back cover states this book is “a comprehensive, authoritative, charmingly grumpy compendium of misuses of the English language.” And the Wall Street Journal says that Fiske’s “flogging of Merriam-Webster’s is one of the many pleasures of this lovely, sour, virtuous book.”

Dictionary of Modern American Usageby Bryan Garner 

At 928 pages, this comprehensive and complete book represents the gold standard to many in the trade. Its author, Bryan Garner, has been called “the wunderkind of American dictionary-making.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage

Of the many usage manuals on the market, copy editors often prefer this one, as they do its cousin in the dictionary department. Authoritative, comprehensive, and easy to read, it follows a “descriptive” rather than a “prescriptive” philosophy.

The Careful Writer, by Theodore M. Bernstein

Theodore M. Bernstein first put together this glossary of stylistic snares in 1965, after a long career as an editor at the New York Times. Bernstein writes oh-so-cleanly, and with occasional sly humor, about usage, which he calls the “spit and polish” that gives writing precision, accuracy, clarity, and color.

Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language, by Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman

Want to know the fine distinctions between ravage and ravish? Wondering what the difference is between pawn off and palm off? Questioning whether Winston Churchill ever actually made that famous quip (“This is the sort of English up with which I will not put,” after a pedant dared to tinker with his writing)?  My favorite source for this stuff is this book, by the author of Woe Is I and her co-author and husband.

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  1. Constance Hale on the many meanings of "style" | Sin and Syntax - September 2, 2010

    [...] (Usage, though, is different from style; it refers to the form or sense with which words and phrases are actually used in a community sharing a common language. For example, those in the know don’t confuse irritate and aggravate; they use the former for something that vexes, annoys or inflames and the latter for something that makes matters worse. For more on the difference between style and usage, see my list of style guides and usage manuals. [...]

  2. Beach reading, bed reading, book reading | Sin and Syntax - July 15, 2014

    […] I’ve also added my list of favorite books on writing in “Cool Tools” and I’ve updated the list of books on “usage and abusage.” […]

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