Resources for Authors
These are a few of the most useful resources I rely on on a day-to-day basis, many of which are on the must-own list for all English-speaking writers.
The Chicago Manual of Style, often shortened to CMOS, is the bible of American publishing professionals. When you need to know how to treat numbers in text, whether to italicize, how to use hyphens and dashes, how to format dialogue, whether to capitalize a term, when to use ellipses and how to format them, and pretty much any other question imaginable about how to prepare copy for publication, this is where you’ll turn. There’s also an overview of grammar, punctuation, and usage, though not comprehensive, that will answer many of your pressing questions.
You can either buy the hardcover CMOS or subscribe through their website; I recommend the hard copy for Chicago neophytes. The subscription is great for editors who just need to look something up quickly as they edit, but the hard copy facilitates reading through the relevant chapters and learning the answers to questions you never knew you had—and since you only need to pay for it once, it’s much less expensive than the subscription.
The New Oxford Style Manual is the definitive style guide for authors using UK English and its variants. This edition combines New Hart’s Rules, a style guide similar to Chicago, with the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors, a concise dictionary that focuses on words and names that often give rise to confusion. If you write in UK English, you’ll definitely want a copy of this book (though I also recommend British authors grab a copy of CMOS as its much more comprehensive in what it covers and clearer in its explanations).
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.
The dictionary officially recommended by CMOS, this is America’s best-selling dictionary and the one you’ll find yourself turning to on a daily basis if you write in US English.
If you write in UK English, you’ll want a British dictionary, which probably means you’ll want to choose from one of Oxford Dictionaries’ many offerings. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary is your best bet for a daily-use desk dictionary; it’s comprehensive yet concise and not too large for small work areas.
Grammar and Usage
Garner’s Modern American Usage has been a staple resource of writers and editors since its first edition appeared in 1998; its newly released (May, 2016) fourth edition has been renamed to Garner’s Modern English Usage. In this volume, Bryan A. Garner—often called the “premier lexicographer of our time,” and the author of the chapter on grammar in the CMOS—explains the nuances of grammar and usage in an easily searched and extremely readable book that avoids the dual traps of being either too prescriptive or too descriptive.
Garner explores how we actually write, not how some long-dead grammarian thinks we should, yet without suggesting that any coherent sentence is as good as any other. Want to know whether it’s “ten items or less” or “ten items or fewer,” or whether you should write “none of the boys was there” or “none of the boys were there”? This is where you’ll turn, time and again. The format is an encyclopedic one—if you want to know whether irregardless is an accepted word, you’ll flip through the alphabetical entries until you get to the I section (and if you don’t find what you’re looking for that way, check the excellent index).
A new release (May, 2016), this is not a comprehensive general grammar but instead a more thorough explanation of the topics covered in Chicago’s popular “Grammar and Usage” and “Punctuation” chapters. Unique among reference books, Garner draws on Google Ngrams—line graphs that chart the prevalence of specific words or terms over decades of English language writing—as empirical evidence (for instance, to compare the prevalence of ignoramuses and ignorami as the plural of ignoramus). Another useful feature is the way in which common misuses are covered right alongside correct uses (as in “Do This: / Don’t Do This:” and “Poor: / Good: / Better:”), helping you to identify those things you always do wrong.
It’s a good idea for a writer to have a dedicated grammar text around, and for those disinclined to invest $285 in Huddleston and Pullum’s more comprehensive Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, the same authors’ introductory overview of grammar, also issued by the Cambridge University Press, is a good, affordable choice. In essence, this is a college-level grammar textbook that presupposes no linguistics background and will help writers broaden their formal knowledge of English grammar. As a textbook, this is a “read it start to finish” type of work rather than a place to look up a specific question quickly, though it can be used to do the latter.
As the title suggests, this book is aimed at editors rather than writers, and it’s a text every professional copyeditor should own (and in my experience, most of us do). Now in its third edition, The Copyeditor’s Handbook is a practical manual for new and experienced editors; for authors, reading it may help with self-editing as well as giving you an idea where your editor is coming from and letting you know what to expect from an editor. (It’s also a pretty entertaining read, as copyediting resources go.)
Style and usage guides touch on punctuation, but they don’t cover the subject comprehensively. This is where a book like June Casagrande’s The Best Punctuation Book, Period comes in. This book covers punctuation much more deeply than other, more general resources, and it uses handy icons to show how punctuation rules differ for book, news, academic and scientific styles. A must-own for the comma-impaired.
This is Merriam-Webster’s free, searchable reference site. It’s not as comprehensive as their subscription-only resource, but it gives you a good, authoritative searchable online dictionary (and thesaurus) for free.
In most cases, the free Webster’s will suffice, but if you need the online version of Chicago style’s official dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (11th), you’ll want to subscribe to Merriam-Webster Unabridged, which gives you access to their Unabridged Dictionary, Collegiate Dictionary, and Collegiate Thesaurus—as well as Spanish-English and French-English dictionaries and a few other resources—for $4.95 a month or $29.95 a year.
Oxford Dictionaries is another great online dictionary, many of whose features are free to use. Choose UK or US English dictionaries from the dropdown menu and search away—or you can search for synonyms (US or UK) or search their free Spanish dictionary (not Spanish-English—the definitions are also in Spanish). With a subscription (institutional only—check to see if your library has access), you can also access many of Oxford’s other dictionaries and guides, like bilingual dictionaries, New Hart’s Rules (recommended above—see Oxford Style Manual under Books) and Pocket Fowler’s Modern English Usage.
I use the Oxford Dictionaries site for three main purposes: as a backup dictionary to Webster’s (that is, for second opinions on hyphenation, spelling or definitions); when working on UK English texts; and when I want to determine if a given word or expression or spelling is US-only or UK-only (Oxford is much better for this last than the Webster’s site or printed dictionary is). UK writers in particular will want to bookmark the Oxford Dictionaries site.
The OED is the definitive comprehensive resource and is particularly essential for authors who need to know the etymology of a word, how it’s historically been used and when it first came into use (generally, and for particular meanings of a word). For instance, consulting the OED, I can quickly see that the word radical has been in use since about 1398, but its slang meaning of “excellent, fantastic” dates only to about 1979. OED access is a must for historical authors in particular.
You can subscribe as an individual for $295 a year or $29.95 a month, but I recommend checking first with your local library to see if they offer access. Nearly all UK libraries subscribe, according to the OED site, and many American libraries do as well. Even joining a library that isn’t your local library may be cheaper than an OED subscription—for instance, my local library, which subscribes to OED, charges $150 a year to issue a library card to out-of-district patrons, half the price of an individual OED subscription.
Not only does CMOS offer a subscription-only online version of their style manual ($35 a year), which comes with access to a discussion forum, they also offer several free resources I use on a regular basis.
There’s a great Q&A section, available for free, which you can browse or search. (And you can submit your own question—I did this recently and they answered me the next day!) Just type your search terms in the top right corner search box—it says it gives you the option of searching either the 15th or 16th edition of CMOS, but when the results appear, you can choose a tab to see the results for the Chicago Q&A section instead.
Lastly, you can consult the 10-page hyphenation table from CMOS, which they’ve kindly made available for free online, in a vain effort to figure out why your editor is changing all your hyphens around.
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