Last time, I urged you to buy a copy of The Elements of Style, which writers have been using for ninety years. It’s the best book of English usage you can find, and we’ll come back to it.
The second most important tool a writer can own is a dictionary. Yes, we can use the handy online dictionaries if we’re in a hurry, but it’s so much better to own at least one dictionary you can hold in your hands, whose pages you can turn. If you’re feeling flush and are as besotted by the English language as I am, the best dictionary in the world is the Oxford English Dictionary (twenty hardcover volumes, $800 on eBay). The OED defines every word in the language. It’s an ongoing project. Turn to any word, and you find out when it entered the English language and how it has rooted, branched, leaved, and born fruit across the years (or centuries). You read variants in meaning and examples of how the word has been used.
If the OED is too ambitious, consider the American Heritage or the Merriam-Webster Collegiate. Both of these are extremely good, with up-to-date words (“goth,” “com” in the sense of the dot in dotcom, “transgendered,”) and definitions. And don’t believe what your eighth-grade English teacher probably told you—“ain’t” is in the dictionary. I have an old American Heritage, which I love for its etymologies and its appendix of Indo-European roots. These features help me when an author whose book I’m editing says that “omphalos” and the meditational sound om are cognates. I can prove they’re not. You can use these features, too, and prevent yourself from making dumb mistakes.
If you want to be a better writer, learn how words really work. What their varieties of meaning are. How to spell them. How to use them in a sentence. Don’t just trust your spell checker. Turn to your dictionary.
Barbara Ardinger – To see what’s sizzling in my imagination and drizzling out through my fingers, see my web site, www.barbaraardinger.com. Do you want to write a book but not embarrass yourself in print? Let me be your editor!