Reference (grammar)


Sunday, 29 December 2013 | Updated Wed 20 April 2016

On this page, we offer our list of genuinely useful and useable reference works on English grammar and usage.

Learn English or Starve is no grammar site. We are not terribly fond of grammar nazis.

But don’t misunderstand; grammar is no trivial pursuit.

Grammar rules help standardise orderly usage (particularly written usage). Differences between American and British English are quite minor but real enough. We support both prescriptive and descriptive stances for grammar because both sides are right.

Yet most of the craptastic claims about usage differences, grammatical merits or demerits, etc, are nowhere as big a deal as the grammarphiles make them out to be.

Grammatical correctitude in modern times has hit warp-factor overdrive.

More’s the pity for it. Horror stories abound of grammarfreaks going on a grammar crusade — like castrated al-Qaeda fighters hopped up on Viagra wearing autoerotic BDSM outfits two sizes too big, using battery-operated non-silicone vibrators — to trounce on any living creature with more than one leg for the littlest apparent grammar violations.

The grammarfreaks pull out all the stops in passing (and gassing) all judgments on grammar violations. They put into play the most antiquated, the most antediluvian, the most tenuous, or the most manifestly insane grammar rules since Roman times as their weapon of indecisive choice.

In short, the grammatically intolerant has finally gone barmy and adopted the most inconceivably misguided zero-tolerance stance imaginable on grammar. You might just be as dumbstricken (not dumbstruck) as we were floored from reading “I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar” (Lifehacker, 01 Aug 2012).

Something is very wrong with these people if their need to win is THAT high.

Two simple facts:—

1. Most grammar rules are convenient devices — artefacts designed to aid structured teaching and language analysis.

2. Grammar rules are in fact guidelines because they come with the expectation that there would be exceptions to the rule. They are therefore not imperatives.


Our favourites

For our money, we consider the world’s two best grammar guides to be:—

M.L. Nesbitt
English Grammar for the Home and Office

London: Methuen, 1905
ca. 100 pages

Our old guard in matters of grammar, until our only copy went missing (BrE) / disappeared (AmE). The title already suggests it’s a working reference rather than a schoolbook. None of the rules in it uses the word “must.”

M.L. Nesbitt
Grammar-Land; Or, Grammar in Fun for Children of Schoolroom-shire

UK: H. Holt & Company, 1878
120 pages
Google Books link

Grammar-Land is a unique and enjoyable grammar for children of early reading age. It tries to make grammar fun by turning a cut and dried subject into a game. The plot admittedly isn’t fascinating or adventurous. It personifies the parts of speech, with the characters arguing who is more important. It is for young children, after all. There’s no disguising that this book is teaching something. It’s probably more appealing to Brits than Americans, who tend to dislike personification of most non-physical entities.


The acknowledged crème de la crème

Below are the world’s acknowledged crème de la crème grammarbooks.

You’ll notice that almost all of them are American works, published mostly between 1850s and 1900s. Americans of that time had even less education than the British so were more in need of knowing proper grammar. Also, the spirit of times in America was to speak or write English as close as possible to British English, which was still regarded as the standard model to follow.

(Arranged in alphabetical order of author’s surname)

Edwin Abbott
How to Write Clearly

UK: Roberts Bros., 1890
Google Books link

An excellent exposition of the principles of clear writing. You can’t get any clearer with a title like that.

Edwin Abbott & (Sir) John Robert Seeley
English Lessons for English People

UK: Little, Brown, 1901
303 pages
Google Books link

A masterwork — certainly for its killer title that makes the book a superb insulting gift.

Edwin Abbott & John George Repplier McElroy
How to Tell the Parts of Speech: An Introduction to English Grammar

UK: Roberts Bros., 1881
143 pages
Google Books link

Brothers of the Christian Schools
First Lessons in English Grammar

New York: La Salle Bureau, 1914
124 pages link

First Lessons in English Grammar was the standard grammarbook used in American Catholic schools, a fact that throws interesting light on the influence of religion on grammar. The hyperlink points to the digital-image version that shows the full glory of the typesetting.

Norman Foerster & J.M. Steadman Jr
Sentences and Thinking: A Practice Book in Sentence Making

New York & Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1919
121 pages link
Online version here

Sentences and Thinking is a great treasure. Anyone just reading it will improve their writing or their enjoyment of writing.

Simon Kerl
A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language for the Use of Schools

New York: Phinney, Blakeman & Mason, 1861
359 pages
Google Books link

Kerl is a delightful and helpful grammar whose beautiful typesetting is worth the read if for no other reason.

Simon Kerl
Elements of Composition and Rhetoric: Practical, Concise, and Comprehensive

New York: Ivison, Phinney, Blakeman & Co., 1868
411 pages
Google Books link

“Rhetoric teaches how to speak or write promptly, elegantly, and effectively” — definitely worth its weight in gold for that sentence alone. A total difference compared with our modern debased understanding of rhetoric.

Lillian Gertrude Kimball
The Structure of the English Sentence

New York & Cincinnati: American Book Co., 1900
244 pages
Google Books link
Online version here

Kimball’s book is a favourite of well-educated Americans. It presents grammar in a most interesting and logical manner with many examples from the best writers of the time.

Lillian Gertrude Kimball
English Grammar

New York & Cincinnati: American Book Co., 1912
271 pages link
Online version here

Another excellent grammar book.

Samuel Kirkham
English Grammar

Rochester NY: Marshall & Dean, Rochester, 1834
228 pages
Google Books link

Kirkham’s English Grammar is a powerful antidote to the constructivist philosophy of grammar that has deconstructed much of modern American education. “For those earnest to acquire a self-education in English Grammar to prepare themselves to be useful and articulate American citizens.”

Samuel Kirkham
An Essay on Elocution

New York: Pratt, Woodford & Co., 1852
365 pages
Google Books link

Elocution is noteworthy for its many passages for oral reading practice.

Cyril L. Locke
A Primer of English Parsing and Analysis

UK: Rivingtons, 1883
Google Books link

Despite the imposing title, Locke’s Primer is an exciting work (a rarity among grammarbooks) that’s actually for upper elementary pupils. It includes exercises from some of the finest literature in the English Language.

Elias J. MacEwan
The Essentials of the English Sentence

USA: D.C. Heath & Co., 1900
310 pages
Google Books link

MacEwan’s English Sentence is one of the world’s clearest and most helpful grammars by general consensus.

H.A. Nash
A Synthetical Grammar, Adapted to the Instruction of Private Students

USA: Gibbens, Atkinson & Co., Printers, 1884
95 pages
Google Books link

Nash’s Synthetical Grammar contains rules and observations for helping students to write “with perspicuity and accuracy.” (Observations as in ‘facts learnt from observation’ as opposed to ‘that which is to be obeyed or adhered’).

Alonzo Reed & Brainerd Kellogg
Higher Lessons in English: A Work on English Grammar and Composition, in which the Science of Language is Made Tributary to the Art of Expression

USA: Charles E. Merrill Co., 1913
442 pages
Google Books link

The grandaddy of all school grammars. Famous for introducing the Reed–Kellogg Base-Modifier Sentence Diagrams.

Sheldon’s Primary Language Lessons

USA: Sheldon & Co., 1895
160 pages
Google Books link

Sheldon’s provides excellent lessons specifically for young children.

Noah Webster
An Improved Grammar of the English Language

USA: Webster & Clark, 1833, 1843
192 pages
Google Books link

© Learn English or Starve, 29 Dec 2013. Last updated 20 Apr 2016.


First released 29 Dec 2013.
Updated 20 Apr 2016 (reformatting and link updates).

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