A plethora of references to improve your writing

Reading time: About 3 minutes

Do you ever need help finding information? There’s nothing better than exactly the right reference. Here’s a list….

One of my dirty little secrets is that I have a Facebook account but check it only about once every three months. Juxtapose this with the habits of my teenage children who check their accounts every three minutes.

In fact, when I opened Facebook this week (the last time had been February 3) my daughter came racing into my office to let me know I was being hacked. When her screen showed that I was swimming in the Facebook stream, that was her only logical assumption!

As usual, I discovered the messages had stacked up like cordwood during my absence, including an interesting one from subscriber Jim Beamguard.

He wrote:

“I would like to see a column about how you find quick answers to tricky grammar questions. Is it “credited for” or “credited with?” When should a question mark or period fall outside the quotation marks?

“Do you have a favorite reference source? I use the on-line AP stylebook, but not everyone has access to it, and it doesn’t address every issue. I continue to see professional writers mess up phrases like ‘shoo-in’ and ‘beg the question.’

“A related issue is what sources you find are worth paying for in the era of free information. I pay for Visual Thesaurus (where I first read your column) and HighBeam, a big database of credible news sources, including many magazines, newspapers and trade journals.

“I would also like to know what reference books you keep within reach. My choices are Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and Reader’s Digest’s old Family Word Finder, which I find is quicker than Roget’s.

Wow! A bevy of great questions, which I will answer with today’s column.

In fact, I’ve just risked a hernia by pulling a massive selection of mostly very large books from my shelves and placing them on the desk beside me. So, here goes:

The best possible book to answer questions such as: “credited for” vs. “credited with” is a book I learned about 40 years ago from my father, who was also a writer. It’s called English Prepositional Idioms by Frederick T. Wood. It’s a wonderfully helpful dictionary that will give you all the details you need to know about prepositions (words that link nouns, pronouns and phrases to other words in the sentence)

In terms of credit, for example, it says: “Credit a person with common sense, etc., or give him credit for common sense. Credit one or one’s account with a sum of money; credit the money to the person or to the account.” Extraordinarily helpful. There was a time in my life when I used this book at least once a week.

As for other reference books, some of my favourites are: the classic book Fowler’s (although I’m one of the few people who prefers the third edited by R.W. Burchfield) and Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale which is wonderfully accessible and has the best explanation of who vs. whom I’ve ever read (p 163-164). My nationality dictates that I use the Canadian Press Stylebook, but you’re right, like the AP guide, it doesn’t include everything.

For quick grammar checking I like Karen Gordon’s books, The Transitive Vampire and The Well-Tempered Sentence: A Punctuation Handbook because they are funny, short and wonderfully straightforward. For style, I adore Spunk & Bite by Arthur Plotnik. (This last one is as entertaining as it is useful.)

For synonyms I mostly use the online Visual Thesaurus because it’s so fast and easy. (There’s a desktop edition for a onetime cost of $39.95 but if you sign up for the online edition at $19.95 per year you also get access to a lively community of people who are interested in writing and words.) I use it daily.

Apart from VT, the best thesaurus I’ve ever found is The Synonym Finder by J.I. Rodale. It’s large (1,361 pages) and magnificent.

For preventing commonly made mistakes (and, as you know, I make ’em too) I like to consult Common Errors in English which is a clear, wonderfully long list in alphabetical order.

When looking for quotes, I’ll try any or all of the following sites: The Quotations Page, Quoteland, BrainyQuote, Wisdom Quotes and The Quote Garden.

Hope this helps!

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