My favorite guides

Having trouble remembering when to use who and whom? Confused by which and that? Want to bone up on the parts of a sentence? Well, hie thee to a bookstore and buy Sin and Syntax, which will also tell you how deploy these grammatical fine points to write “wicked good prose.” If you hunger for more, here are my favorite grammar guides—from the geeky to the goofy.

A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, edited by Randolph Quirk. (Essex: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1985). The dean of British grammarians, led the team that produced this behemoth, which will tell you everything—I mean everything—about grammar. Let the buyer beware: this book is expensive, but worth it.

The Deluxe Transitive Vampire, by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. This masterpiece of Gothic humor and racy sentences might be called “grammar for grownups,” or, as Gordon suggests, for “the innocent, the eager, and the doomed.”

When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It, by Ben Yagoda. (New York: Broadway, 2007). Yagoda’s tweak on Mark Twain’s famous admonition gives a hint to his treatment of grammar: witty. His table of contents shows what he focuses on: the parts of speech, period.

Woe Is I, by Patricia T. O’Conner. (New York: Grosset/Putnam, 1996) Less comprehensive than the books listed above, O’Conner nevertheless takes the reader on a clear-headed stroll through the labyrinth that is English. She manages to amuse, too, in chapters with names like “Comma Sutra: The Joy of Punctuation” and “The Compleat Dangler: A Fish out of Water.”

I’m a big fan of books, and I love, love, love my library. That’s where I go first when I have language questions. But maybe you’re on the road, or you just love to surf the Web. Here are some online resources that I have found to be both credible and helpful when it comes to grammar questions.

External link opens in new tab or windowGrammar Girl, aka Mignon Fogarty, promises “quick and dirty tips for better writing.” Her site is part of a gimmicky branding scheme—other “Quick and Dirty” sites give you advice on parenting (“Kids and Naps”), pets (“What to Do About Your Humping Dog”) and protecting your capital (“How to Short Sell a Stock”). But the Grammar Girl podcasts are serious stuff. Each podcast deals with one grammar dilemma, often spawned by an email. The typical podcast lasts only a few minutes, and is friendly but credible. (It usually includes multiple citations.) The transcripts are posted on the Web site, so you can read along as Fogarty breezes past “between” and settles on “how to use semicolons.”

The Capital Community College Foundation is a nonprofit that supports scholarships, faculty development,and curriculum innovation. It also helps peons get grammar.  Its Guide to Grammar and Writing is great; start with the External link opens in new tab or windowindex.

The lively blog at External link opens in new tab or windowLanguage Hat is maintained by a former student of historical linguistics who was born in Tokyo, grew up in various hemispheres, and ended up an editor in Manhattan. (He prefers to remain anonymous and gives tidbits of his bio under the clever “my hats” link, which is literally about his collection of hats.) This is really a site about language more than grammar or writing, and includes links to the Boston Globe column called “The Word,” the sci.lang FAQ, the Dictionary of the Scots Language, and The Kanji Site.

The tagline of External link opens in new tab or windowMotivated Grammar—Prescriptivism Must Die!—gives you an idea of its slant. The creation of Gabe Doyle, a graduate student in Linguistics at the University of California, San Diego, it’s a bit geeky—more linguistics jousting than guide to good writing. Doyle describes himself as a computational psycholinguist, which means that he uses computers to model how people think about language. He says his purpose is to “set the record straight”—to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn’t.

—Constance Hale

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