Despite the ready availability of spell checkers, grammar software, and online dictionaries and style guides, every serious writer still needs a few good reference books. Yes, these are all "look it up" books, as we called them when we were kids. But most are also delightful works to browse through and occasionally get lost in.
This 2,100-page heavyweight should serve you well for a generation or two. In addition to the customary definitions, word histories, examples, and quotations, The American Heritage Dictionary offers advice on matters of usage and style--courtesy of its "renowned" (and still controversial) Usage Panel. For the budget-minded, a close second choice in the dictionary category is the shorter and less costly Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition.
Alternative text for British writers: Oxford Dictionary of English, by Soanes and Stevenson (2005).
Since the appearance of the first edition in 1998, Garner's Modern American Usage has become the standard guide for American writers and editors. Its most distinctive feature, said novelist David Foster Wallace, is that "its author is willing to acknowledge that a usage dictionary is not a bible or even a textbook but rather just the record of one smart person's attempts to work out answers to certain very difficult questions." That "one smart person" is lawyer and lexicographer Bryan A. Garner. Clearly and wittily, Garner leavens his prescriptive approach, as he says, "by a thorough canvassing of actual usage in modern edited prose."
Alternative text for British writers: The Oxford Style Manual, by Robert Ritter (2003).
Among U.S. book publishers, The Chicago Manual of Style is the most widely used guide to style, editing, and design. Running close to 1,000 pages, it's also the most comprehensive. (In addition, an online version is available by subscription.) However, this durable guide (the first edition appeared in 1906) faces competition from more specialized reference works, such as the AP Stylebook (see below); The Gregg Reference Manual (for business professionals); American Medical Association Manual of Style; Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association; and the MLA Style Manual (used by writers in the humanities). But if your profession doesn't have its own style guide, go with Chicago.
4. AP Stylebook
Known as "the journalist's bible," the AP Stylebook (revised annually) contains over 5,000 entries on matters of grammar, spelling, punctuation, and usage. When you have questions that other reference books ignore, go to the AP Stylebook: chances are good that the answers are here. For an online sample, visit Ask the Editor.
Alternative text for British writers: The Economist Style Guide, 10th edition (2010).
Despite the title, this reference work by Gerald Alred, Walter Oliu, and Charles Brusaw should be helpful to all writers, not only those in the business world. The alphabetically arranged entries cover matters ranging from the finer points of grammar and usage to conventional formats for articles, letters, reports, and proposals. This is one of the very few textbooks that students hold on to and actually use long after they graduate.
Once you've settled on an editorial style manual (such as the AP Stylebook or The Chicago Manual of Style), consider supplementing it with Amy Einsohn's smart and practical handbook, subtitled "A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications." Targeting "new and aspiring copyeditors who will be working on nonfiction books, journal articles, letters, and corporate publications," The Copyeditor's Handbook is both a lucid textbook and a straightforward reference tool.
Alternative text for British writers and editors: Butcher's Copy-editing: The Cambridge Handbook for Editors, Copy-editors and Proofreaders, by Judith Butcher, Caroline Drake, and Maureen Leach (Cambridge University Press, 2006).
This self-described "classic guide to writing nonfiction" by William K. Zinsser actually lives up to its publisher's claims: "Praised for its sound advice, its clarity, and its warmth of style, . . . it is a book for anybody who wants to learn how to write, whether about people or places, science and technology, business, sports, the arts, or about yourself."
Yes, Strunk and White's Elements of Style strikes some readers as precious, fussy, and out of date. And yet this expanded version of Professor William Strunk's 1918 writing guide for students at Cornell University remains extremely popular. You'll find more practical information in The Business Writer's Handbook. And Joseph Williams's Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (Longman, 2006) is more thorough and contemporary. But when it comes to writing about style with style, E. B. White (long-time New Yorker essayist and author of Charlotte's Web) really can't be beat.