My favourite grammar reference book

Reading time: Less than 2 minutes

We all need at least one decent grammar reference book for our shelves. My recommendation? The Transitive Vampire…

I’ve never fancied myself as much of an expert on grammar. I hated the subject as a school child and I learned it only reluctantly as an adult. But I was blessed with parents who spoke correctly and intelligently and somehow, by osmosis, learned my grammar mostly by ear.

Perhaps because I write so much and teach writing to others, people assume I will have an inherent ability with grammar. (The real secret? I have an excellent copy editor.)

And I have some excellent books. Whenever anyone asks me to recommend such a reference book, I don’t hesitate for a nanosecond. I always recommend The Transitive Vampire, by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. Complete, concise and cheeky, the book is filled with illustrations from cheap Victorian tabloid novels. They include prints of gargoyles, demons and vampires illustrating ridiculous sentences such as: Hey, girlie, drag your carcass over here!

And see how eloquently she defines and describes verbs: The verb is the heartthrob of a sentence. Without a verb, a group of words can never hope to be anything more than a fragment, a hopelessly incomplete sentence, a eunuch or dummy of grammatical expression. No verb can parade around without a subject, which can be stated openly or simply implied. Even if a sentence is only one word long, as in a command such as Scram!, the subject is understood to be you; here the verb holds the whole thing together, carrying the burden of the meaning all the way through to the exclamation point and into the reader’s head.

I bought the book some 27 years ago, at Foyles in London. Shortly thereafter, I bought her equally charming and useful The Well-Tempered Sentence, subtitled: A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed. Near as I can tell, both books have now been combined into a single title known as The Deluxe Transitive Vampire. If you have ever despaired of learning grammar, buy this book. (Or ask for it for Christmas!)