The best grammar and English usage books: praise from high places


I’m a big fan of these books about English usage and grammar. And I’m in good company: each book has enjoyed its own celebrity or high-profile endorsements — some surprising, and some surprisingly witty, given the subject matter of the texts. But even the best linguists can’t please everyone, and a couple of critics were happy to prove this point too …

H. W. Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage:

“Why must you write intensive here? Intense is the right word. You should read Fowler’s Modern English Usage on the use of the two words.'” — Winston Churchill, in a letter to the Director of Military Intelligence about the plans for the invasion of Normandy

“Reading Fowler provides instruction and knowledge and direction, but the whole of it is a sensual delight.” — William F. Buckley

“[Fowler] has afforded me endless amusement and instruction through my very long life.” — Jessica Mitford

Strunk and White: The Elements of Style

“If someone wants to toss it in the box with me when I go six feet under, that would be fine; it might actually assure my passage through the Pearly Gates, since Saint Peter no doubt is a gentleman of impeccable grammatical taste, not to mention style.” — Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post‘s book critic

“An aging zombie of a book . . . a hodgepodge, its now-antiquated pet peeves jostling for space with 1970s taboos and 1990s computer advice.” — Boston Globe, reviewing The Elements of Style Illustrated in 2005

Paul Brians: Common Errors in English Usage

“Let’s just say that Common Errors in English Usage is the most cheerfully useful book I’ve read since the Kama Sutra.” — Scott Simon, host of NPR’s Weekend Edition

Bryan Garner: Garner’s Modern American Usage

Garrison Keillor has called it one of the five most influential books in his library.

Mark Davidson: Right, Wrong, and Risky

“When I was nineteen I traveled by bus to New York with a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus on my lap, educating and delighting myself along the way. Now with Mark Davidson’s wonderful Right, Wrong, and Risky, I long for a similar trip in which to instruct my mind and free my spirit.” — Ray Bradbury

Lynne Truss: Eats, Shoots & Leaves

“If Lynne Truss were Roman Catholic I’d nominate her for sainthood.” — Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes

“Of course, I knew how it would appear to other people. ‘At the age of 48, she wrote a book on punctuation.’ If you were to read that thumbnail sketch in a novel, you would know everything you needed to know about this character’s tragic lack of ambition (and ignorance of the book trade).” — Lynne Truss, on writing her own runaway bestseller

“An Englishwoman lecturing Americans on semicolons is a little like an American lecturing the French on sauces. Some of Truss’s departures from punctuation norms are just British laxness.” — Louis Menand, New Yorker

2 thoughts on “The best grammar and English usage books: praise from high places

  1. Benjamin Schwarz

    In the Eric Partridge entry, you are in fact quoting David Foster Wallace quoting Bryan Garner (that is, the words quoted are Garner’s, not Wallace’s).

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