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(Still) Groping for Words: Usage and Slang Guides, Revisited: Home

by Edwin L. Battistella


This essay first appeared in the September 2021 issue of Choice (volume 58 | issue 13)


Where does one go to find out if there is an apostrophe in “Presidents(’) Day”? Where does one look for information on the correct pronunciations of “Missouri,” “Nevada,” and “Oregon”? Where can one find the British variant of the American expression “line up”? Where does one look to determine whether to put a comma before the last item in a series? For answers to all these questions, one goes to a usage guide, of course. But which?

This essay sorts through some of the many books on grammar, pronunciation, spelling, diction, and punctuation, adding some not included in the original essay and deleting those that are no longer useful. The organization of the essay is primarily topical, with some historical background thrown in. The easiest way to describe the scope of this essay is to point out what it does not discuss. For example, excluded are comprehensive linguistic grammars, which mainly describe language syntax, morphology, and sound structure,1 and composition texts, which tend to focus on instruction, exercises, and models for student writing.2 Also excluded are dictionaries per se, although a discussion of style guides cannot omit them altogether. Dictionaries define words and track usage, in so doing assigning a variety of labels, for example, “archaic” and “vulgar.” Dictionary makers have come a long way since the days of Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster, and numerous excellent unabridged dictionaries are available—Oxford English Dictionary (“the OED”), Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (“Webster’s Third”), The Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, to name just four. Those looking for dictionaries with perspectives on style and usage would do well to turn to Sidney Landau’s Dictionaries: The Art and Craft of Lexicography or to The Cambridge Companion to English Dictionaries, edited by Sarah Ogilvie, which includes a comprehensive bibliography of dictionaries and lexicography. For brief reviews of hundreds of dictionaries in print as of August 1992, the reader can consult Kenneth Kister’s Best Dictionaries for Adults & Young People: A Comparative Guide. Though now dated, Kister’s book includes about three-dozen style and usage guides along with crossword dictionaries, rhyming dictionaries, and dictionaries of difficult words.

Before proceeding, a word about the works cited list that accompanies this essay. The sorts of books discussed in this piece are particularly prone to changes of titles since they are often revised, updated, enlarged, and so on. Works are cited with their most recent titles and editions; original titles and/or editions are included parenthetically. Not included on the cite list are titles peripheral to this essay and mentioned in the endnotes. Readers can assume that many of the titles discussed in this essay are available in digital format. That said, the essay concludes with a brief section of particularly noteworthy sites.

Edwin Battistella is in the division of humanities and culture at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon.  His Dangerous Crooked Scoundrel: Insulting the President, from Washington to Trump (2020) was an Oregon Book Award finalist in 2021.