Some rules in American English are well-established — for example, use a double quotation mark to indicate speech or literal attribution of another person’s words. Some conventions, however, dance like sprites around the Hard Red Line of “correct” usage. Such as: Should you use over or more than to indicate superior quantity?
English is chock full of standards that aren’t universally accepted. Because there’s no one source of truth for what constitutes normative usage, the best a writer can do is to pick something and then be consistent with it.
Such is the value of a stylebook: It sets spelling, punctuation and usage rules. When in doubt, consult the stylebook. Of course, several different authorities offer different stylebooks with different content. The Associated Press, for example, offers the bible of stylebooks for practicing journalists, and Microsoft authors a well-regard stylebook for technology and Web standards. Much of what you’ll find in a stylebook will match, but some items won’t — Arabic names make a great case in point.
To grow your craft as a writer, pick one or two stylebooks — we’ll share a list of recommendations, below — and then study them in detail. The value of these manuals isn’t that they sit on a shelf and collect dust; you have to review them to know what’s in them, so you understand when to consult them.
Popular Stylebooks and Usage Manuals
- The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law — The AP Stylebook appears annually in both a print and an online version; the latter includes off-season updates and is, therefore, an excellent option for people averse to paper. This volume covers the normative spelling and usage employed by the AP (and hence, by very many journalists across the country), so it includes some info specific to journalism, like how to file kills or clarifications on the AP Wire. The volume does include a substantial and useful monograph on common legal concerns for journalists, much of which generalizes to writers of all stripes. By default, Caffeinated Press adheres to AP rules unless there’s a compelling reason to deviate.
- The Chicago Manual of Style — Along with other academic manuals, Chicago not only offers guidance about style and usage, but it covers the how-to parts of captions, abbreviations, math within type, table design, etc. Useful for, say, a doctoral dissertation, Chicago is broadly applicable to manuscript formatting, research citations and indexing, too.
- Common Errors in English Usage (Paul Brians) — The second, expanded, edition appeared in 2009 and received the support of Mignon Fogarty and Mack Miles. The tone is generally permissive, with entries marked by light-hearted comments and wordplay. The volume addresses several hundred of the most commonly misused words in contemporary English usage. This book is an excellent introduction to usage manuals given its accessibility to casual readers.
- A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (H. W. Fowler) — Originally published in 1928 and revised in 1965, some of the standards reflect stricter usage practices than contemporary speakers may favor. It is, nevertheless, one of the gold standards, with easy-to-digest entries and insight into some very rare words and phrases.
- Garner’s Modern American Usage (Bryan A. Gardner) — This 2009 volume, the third edition, is supported by a long cast of literary and linguistic experts. It is perhaps the authoritative manual of contemporary English usage, with an encyclopedic feel and coverage not only of usage, but also of various points of grammar and punctuation. The volume is amply sourced with modern examples of both good and bad usage. Most entries include a “language-change index,” a five-point scale indicating the degree to which the particular usage is accepted as appropriate by literate audiences.
- Usage and Abusage (Eric Partridge) — Partridge revised this work four times between 1942 and 1973, with an additional 1994 revision by Janet Whitcut. The original author brought his deep understanding of diction and syntax to the fore. This book is smaller than its peers, and may be considered in some ways a bridge between Fowler and Garner. Useful if you can find it, and concise enough that it won’t overwhelm.
- Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Allusions (E Webber & M. Feinsilber) — Ever wonder what a specific, obscure literary reference or specialty art term means? This dictionary, presented in the form of short narratives for each entry, gives historical reference and typical meanings for hundreds of terms.
- The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols (J. Chevalier & A. Gheerbrant) — If you’ve ever wondered whether a word evokes a deeper meaning beyond what you’ll find in a standard dictionary, this thick reference guide has you covered. Each of the hundreds of terms includes a brief essay outlining the history and meaning (including the shifting meaning over time) for various objects and ideas represented in the world’s literature.
- Slang and Euphemism (Richard A. Spears) — A short dictionary with short entries, offering concise definitions of drug talk, sexual slang, curses and related words and phrases. Last revised in 2001, however.
- The Wordsworth Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (I. Evans) — A compendium of terms from literary works, mythology, fables and psychology. A product of the 1970s, but still immensely useful.
Why invest in books when you have the Internet? Simple: Basic Google or Bing searches rarely reveal the authoritative information you’ll find in a stylebook or specialty dictionary. The valuable information in these reference books is hard to find through simple Web searching; worse, you’ll likely find information that’s of varying degrees of accuracy. Contrary to popular belief, the Internet is neither the sole nor the best tool for literary research.
The main value to a writer — even a fiction writer of short genre stories — of following a stylebook is consistency. In many cases, it doesn’t matter whether a particular usage is too permissive or too restrictive as long as the usage is the same throughout a given work.
Buy a stylebook. Study it. And if you want to check out any of these books, drop by the Caffeinated Press office during our open office hours — they’re all available for you to browse.