Grammar Shorts two drops of ink

Grammar Shorts: Great Books For Improving Your Grammar

I think most people agree there is a component of skill in art making; you have to learn grammar before you learn how to write.

~Chris Van Allsburg~

By Jayne Bodell 


Please don’t confuse being an expert with being perfect. Even the experts have to consult with other experts. Didn’t you know that an expert is one who knows where to find the answers? When I don’t know the answer to a grammatical question, I start with one of these references.

When I don’t know the answer to a grammatical question, I start with one of these references. Click To Tweet
  1. Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition. I reach for this reference first, probably because it’s been with me forever. Well, not quite forever; 1972 was the first published year. If you used this book, you’re probably old. But don’t let the age fool you. The explanations and examples are easy to follow, and there are exercises if you’re feeling energetic. Best of all, if I’m looking for something simple, I find it comforting to reach for a book from my bookshelf instead of hunting the internet.
  2. McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage by Mark Lester and Larry Beason. When I started my grammar blog, I knew that I had better check what new references were available in grammar land. It didn’t take long to realize that this gem was a keeper.

The text is less formal than the Warriner’s, almost reading like a novel. Sounds like a stretch, but I like reading about this stuff, okay? I also like the section on grammar etiquette for digital communication. Their opinion is that grammar rules were not written with digital discourse in mind, but that we should err on the side of correctness because we don’t have an excuse to be sloppy.

  1. The Copyeditor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn. I consult this book as a substitute for the Chicago Manual of Style. If you’ve ever tried to find something in the Chicago Manual, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Amy Einsohn uses this book to teach her copywriting class, so she approaches the subject of grammar from a copyeditor’s standpoint. The book is well organized, and the layout makes sense. Chapter 14, “Grammar: Principles and Pitfalls,” discusses the stickier topics that come up in grammar and how copyeditors, authors, and other experts deal with them. This chapter would be most helpful for writers who are learning to work with editors.

  1. The Handbook of Good English by Edward D. Johnson. The book has been around since 1983 with one revision in 1991. Johnson was a Harvard graduate and book editor for Simon and Schuster and Alfred A. Knopf. He starts the book describing what makes up a sentence. From there he breaks down each part: tense, agreement, structure and punctuation. I like his in-depth explanations, but if you’re a grammar novice, you might want to read bits and pieces or save this for when you want to graduate to the next level.
  2. covers all the basic grammar questions you may have. Jane Straus is the founder of this website and the author of the best-selling book, The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation. Unfortunately, Jane died in 2011, but the site continues to be updated with a blog. The articles are informative and come with a quiz at the end to test your understanding. The site started the new year with a giant quiz that covered the past year. The answers contain links to the articles that the question addresses.
  3. Daily Writing Tips. This is a website that will improve your grammar skills, guaranteed. I signed up for about six months. Each day you receive an article and daily exercise to read and complete. These exercises were difficult, so if you plan to sign up, expect to take your time because you’ll need to study the explanations to understand the concept. I finally had to stop my subscription because, like all daily things, if it’s not personal hygiene related they get overlooked. But, if you plan to put some time into your grammar skills, this would be the place.

When I joined in late 2016, they offered three free books as an enticement. If you get the same books today, you’ll be as disappointed as I was. They were from 2007 and looked like they were thrown together for website freebies. I wrote a blog about this website listing the pros and cons if you want more details.

These suggestions only scratch the surface of references to hone your grammar skills. I have also used Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl site but found it cluttered and slow to load. It’s up to you to find what works best for you, but I do recommend that you buy some grammar books. There’s something about writing in your nook and being able to reach for a book to find the answer you’re looking for.

Monthly Contributor: Jayne Bodell

Jayne Bodell graduated from UW-Madison with an English degree many, many years ago. About two years ago, she renewed her interest in writing by starting a blog about grammar but soon realized that she wanted to expand her subject matter. She now blogs about keeping life simple, smart, and sassy at In between blog posts, she’s planning to branch into the scary world of writing fiction by writing a collection of flash fiction stories.
Jayne lives in Wisconsin and fills her spare time with gardening, photography, knitting, reading, and a side of coloring. Her favorite way to vacation is to pick a general destination and drive, no time constraints and no plans.


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  1. Thank you Jayne for the tips. Your post is also fun to read.
    I am not a native English speaker and I often feel I need help, but the resources I’ve found on my own do not seem to address my needs. Also they’re boring! (Or maybe I’m lazy?)

    • It’s never too late to become a grammar nerd, Michelle. All are welcome into our little group. This is one part of writing that takes little talent which is probably why I like it. 🙂

  2. Hi, Jayne. This is a great list of books on grammar. I would only add the following:

    Understanding English Grammar by Martha Kolln and Robert Funk
    Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark
    Two books by Max Morenberg: The Writer’s Options and Doing Grammar

    Scott swears by Morenberg, and suggested I get his books. All four of these books are on my desk. I’m like you, there’s something about holding the book that engages me more than online reading if I’m trying to learn something.

    My grandson likes books by B. J. Chute; I like her quote: “Grammar is to a writer what anatomy is to a sculptor or the scales to a musician. You may loathe it, it may bore you, but nothing will replace it, and once mastered it will support you like a rock.” ― B.J. Chute

    • Great comments Marilyn. Just to follow up about Max Morenberg, his book the is easiest grammar book I’ve ever seen. It’s a college textbook, but don’t let that intimidate you. Great post Jayne.

        • A fun exercise for writers to try is to parse sentences. For those that happened to purchase Max Morenberg’s book, which you can find much cheaper than Amazon quotes it, you can also do some sentence diagramming. These exercises, along with reading, help writers to develop the ability to see proper syntax and grammar intuitively. Hope that helps.

  3. Jayne, my turn to compliment you. I wish I were a word smith like yourself. I’m envious of your skill, but happy you are generous with your knowledge. Appreciate sharing this with us. J

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