Mental Pivot

Notes and observations from a lifelong pursuit of learning.

A Shortlist of Useful Reference Books on English Grammar and Punctuation

In the course of writing my mini-series on punctuation, I’ve come to realize how useful it is to have a reliable reference collection for English grammar and punctuation. This post lists the reference books I find myself repeatedly pulling off the bookshelf.

Despite the wealth of internet resources on the topic, I am biased towards physical books. Here are a few reasons why:

  • A reference book does one thing only (and does it really well).
  • A reference book contains pure information: mostly words and whitespace. There are no distracting popups, advertisements, navigation bars or other “cruft” for the reader to wade through.
  • I like the forced mental break of context-switching from computer screen (writing) to paper book (referencing).

Fortunately, all of the books I list below are available digitally, so you can still work on a computer, e-reader, or tablet if that’s your preference.

Comprehensive References

I turn to these big, relatively dry books when I have a specific question that needs answering.

  • The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation by Bryan A. Garner (2016). The author has a prodigious catalog of books on the topic of grammar and style (including the well-regarded “Garner’s Modern English Usage”). This book is essentially an excerpt of the chapter he wrote for the authoritative Chicago Manual of Style.
  • The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation by Jane Straus, et. al. (11th Edition, 2014). Well-organized, no-nonsense guide. Topics follow a simple formula: A succinct definition is given followed by a list of basic rules and ample examples. The layout for individual entries is excellent.
  • Perfect English Grammar by Grant Barrett (2016). This book is less serious than its peers: the author has a breezier more casual approach to grammar which is refreshing. Tone aside, it is well-organized and contains copious examples.

I have copies of the “classic” style books—The Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press Style Book—but I find these reference books too massive and too comprehensive for my purposes. Don’t get me wrong, they are authoritative and super useful, but I prioritize ease-of-use which is why I turn to the listed references first.

Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style” is a given, but it’s rarely the first reference I turn to.

Supplemental Books

These are shorter books that are injected with more personality and can be highly opinionated. I turn to these books for added "color commentary" on a topic after I've perused the references listed in the preceding section.

  • The Best Punctuation Book Period by June Casagrande (2014). Well-organized and particularly generous when it comes to written examples. This is a solid choice for punctuation-specific questions.
  • Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer (2019). An incredibly fun and opinionated take on English grammar and usage. I visit Dreyer’s English to see if he has any thoughts on a given topic after I’ve looked at the comprehensive reference books above.
  • Woe is I by Patricia O’Connor (4th Edition, 2019). A self-described “grammarphobe’s guide to better plain English in plain English.” Author has a knack for effectively and humorously explaining concepts.