Written English is in danger, but not necessarily for the reasons you assume. Warring parties of grammarians, teachers, literacy activists, and politicians are addressing widespread linguistic changes by debating the risks and rewards of the language’s inevitable evolution. And yet, shifting conventions — whether perceived as beneficial or detrimental — don’t actually herald a literary apocalypse. Rather, the threat lies in the misapprehended implication that language and its written rules are static entities that can be regulated in tangible ways.
Purists continue to decry the corrosive impact of txt msging, lolspeak, and innumerable other Internetisms. TIME recently bemoaned the loss of quality control with the rise of self-publishing and blogs. Book World’s Dennis Drabelle defended the art of editing in The Washington Post, making the case that discerning editors perform an essential task mirrored throughout the echelons of mainstream culture.
On the other side of the spectrum, however, are those who claim that English isn’t changing fast enough. The Believer wrote about literacy activists picketing the Scripps National Spelling Bee to demand the simplification of English spelling. John Wells, Emeritus Professor of Phonetics at University College London and president of the Spelling Society, echoed their calls by arguing that the inconsistency of written English has hindered literacy among children and non-native speakers alike. As if to further bolster the case for simplified rules, Birmingham, home to Britain’s second largest urban population, recently decided to drop apostrophes from all street and road signs to promote consistency with those that already lack them.
Wherever you fall in this debate, there’s no need to start smashing your keyboard. English is, after all, a language principally characterized by its ability to adapt and adopt. Rather than fighting these fluctuations, why not embrace them by honing our understanding of the existing patterns and nuances of the written word? Here are our top five picks for the best guides to spelling, grammar, and proper punctuation (as they’re presently accepted):
Comma Sense: A Fun-damental Guide to Punctuation by Richard Lederer and John Shore As far as punctuation goes, most people border on near illiteracy. Richard Lederer’s widely read essay “Conan the Grammarian” established him as an expert on English language, and in Comma Sense, he adopts the same easy approach to the proper use of squiggles, lines, and dots.
Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies: A Guide to Language for Fun and Spite by June Casagrande Already a popular grammar columnist in LA, June Casagrande takes the tongue-wagging out of the grammar game with her patient and humorous writing. This book provides a no-nonsense overview that will appeal to anyone intimidated by literary elitists.
Things That Make Us [sic]: The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar Takes on Madison Avenue, Hollywood, the White House, and the World by Martha Brockenbrough A snarky antidote to the bestselling Eats, Shoots & Leaves, this guide incorporates etymology and writing advice, while tackling the blunders of linguistic laziness.
Lapsing into a Comma: A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print — and How to Avoid Them by Bill Walsh As the chief copyeditor for the business section of The Washington Post, Bill Walsh is responsible for both accuracy and eloquence. Lapsing into a Comma focuses on the art of editing through attention to style and structure, illustrating the minutiae of punchy writing.
Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English (Second Edition) by Patricia T. O’Conner Written for those who dread grammar and all of its endless rules, this former New York Times Book Review editor’s concise volume is an engaging survey of the idiosyncrasies of the English language. Originally published in 2003; the follow-up edition features a chapter on email etiquette.