Passing the book on the question of grammar

So you know how to handle commas as a result of having Lynne Truss’s gently amusing mega-seller Eats, Shoots & Leaves on your bookshelf for a year or two. What next?

A good place to go is David Crystal’s Rediscover Grammar. Crystal has been both a professor of linguistics and a freelance writer, so knows how to explain the various functions of nouns and verbs, concord and phrase structures. A companion volume, Making Sense of Grammar, is well worth looking at, too.

Wynford Hicks, with English for Journalists, moves over into writing, with advice on style and handling reported speech as well as grammar and spelling. A review quoted on the back cover sums up the appeal: ‘It’s short. It’s accessible. It’s cheap. And it tells you what you want to know.”

Essential English, by Harold Evans, much-praised former editor of The Sunday Times, started life as Newsman’s English, which shows how US-oriented he was even before going to the States, and how unisex British journalistic English has become in the meantime.

Bill Bryson is Bill Bryson, but he was once a sub-editor on The Independent and that experience shows up in Troublesome Words. Wynford Hicks does something similar in Quite Literally.

Even more troublesome words show up in the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors, ODWE, as it gets called. If you want to know the original definition of enormity, or that sea lion is two words, or that the Prussian Imperial family was known as the House of Hohenzollern, this is the book for you.

The Economist Style Guide helps out with things like names of countries and political leaders, as with their version of Colonel Qaddafi – or should that be Gadaffi, or Gadafy, or even, as The Times English Style Guide once tried to suggest, Gadhdhafi.

Then there is a book that puts all this within one framework: The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language by, once again, David Crystal. For some reason, I like knowing that cucumber is one of the oldest words in the English language.

On top of that, in a feat of publishing confusion, there are two books identically titled The State of the Language, both edited by Leonard Michaels and Christopher Ricks, and distinguishable only by the fact that one comes in a yellow jacket and the other in red. But the content is just wonderful; article after article on things like ‘The Voices of Business”, or ‘Radio Talk”, or ‘The Language of Sisterhood”, or ‘Clichés”.

Humphrey Evans teaches the NUJ‘s Sub-editing: An Introduction course. For more information visit

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