Meet Hermione, a bewitching kitten with impeccable reading tastes. She lives with Lynne Liukka out in Washington state. (Thank you, Lynne!)
If this were my own bookshelf, the kitten would be lounging on dictionaries of various topics (biography, rhyming, geographical, etc.), foreign phrase books, Roget’s Thesaurus (the classic standard edition, not the dictionary version), William Powell’s splendid Encyclopedia of North Carolina, and a dozen more reference books. Even with the internet at my fingertips, I still go to them first.
There are two indispensable books that I dip into every year. The first is Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1st or 2nd edition only, please), which is not only full of excellent advice for precise writing but is also a witty, cranky, opinionated and utterly charming treatise on proper usage. There is a more modern version, but it dilutes Fowler’s acerbic voice. Open it anywhere. I just opened mine to of, about which Fowler writes, “This preposition shares with another word of the same length, AS, the evil glory of being accessary to more crimes against grammar than any other.” He then takes two full pages to list those crimes. Irresistible for a writer!
The second book, the one I read every year from cover to cover, is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. As with Fowler, there are later editions meant to improve and “update.” Forget them and seek out the 1st or 2nd edition in its original crisp brevity. It is less than 80 pages long and can be read in one sitting, although you will probably want to linger over some of its injunctions if you are a writer. It begins with the elementary rule: “Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ’s. . . whatever the final consonant. Thus: Charles’s friend, Burns’s poems, the witch’s malice.” It ends with “Prefer the standard to the offbeat.”
Both books take the position that precise word choice and construction result in clarity of meaning, or, as my husband says of painting, “You have to know the rules before you break them.”
And it’s the breaking that often constitutes style.
(To be continued.)