A Word of Advice: Grammar is not Math
We’ve selected the sites on this list because on the whole, we think they’re pretty good. But “rules” in writing – unlike, say, rules in Newtonian physics – are not written in stone. They are established by agreement among experienced writers, even though experienced writers can and do disagree all the time. You’ll find, then, that grammar books and sites can offer conflicting advice. Sometimes a source’s advice may even conflict with your professor’s or boss’s favorite grammatical beliefs. But although we cannot endorse any single source, on-line or off, as the last word on words, the sites we’ve chosen here do offer solid grammatical advice – and some of them manage to be pretty amusing as well. So surf away, but arm yourself first with your native skepticism and common sense.
Grammar: Quick Guides
Just the facts: when you’re in a hurry. Jack Lynch’s Grammar and Style Notes (Rutgers) is a well-written, literate, and lively guide to a host of grammatical issues.
But wait, there’s more! In-depth guides. About.com’s Richard Nordquist has an extensive, informative collection of grammar-related articles on his Grammar and Composition rubric. Dr. Nordquist illustrates his points with copious examples of good writing, taken from authors ranging from George Eliot to Jon Stewart. This entertaining and instructive site is the first place you should go when the first place you went wasn’t enough.
Better grammar through nostalgia. Finally, those of us who learned our grammar on TV can return to Schoolhouse Rock (use your popup blocker), a site – or rather a shrine – devoted to the old Schoolhouse Rock songs, including several about grammar. If you want the lyrics to “Conjunction Junction” and other anthems of the Saturday morning pre-teen set, then this site is for you (you know who you are). For an even greater nostalgia bath, try searching Youtube for “Schoolhouse Rock.” As of our last update, Conjunction Junction and several other Schoolhouse Rock favorites had been posted there by public-spirited grammar fans.
Usage guides cover such matters as choosing between words of similar meaning and the correct spelling of frequently misspelled words. Most of the guides in the Grammar section deal with some usage questions, but if you need more depth, you may want consult a specialist. The Washington State University’s Paul Brians has devoted a site to correcting Common Errors in English. Learn the proper use of (among many other things) affect/effect, its/it’s, assure/ensure/insure, and – a favorite from our youth – peasant/pheasant. (Pheasants are not likely to revolt, peasants are not likely to fly.) Unlike some other usage sites, this one explains why some uses are preferred over others; it’s (not its) both well designed and well written.
For more usage advice, try The American Heritage Guide to English Usage. Its alphabetized list of common word choice errors will protect you from many catastrophes, such as using “illicit” when you mean “elicit,” “oral” when you mean “aural,” or “incredible” when you mean “incredulous.” (Why yes, these distinctions do matter, and we can imagine circumstances in which they would matter a great deal.)
Thesauruses (or thesauri) and dictionaries
A good thesaurus can help when you know what you want to say but aren’t quite sure how to (say, express, declare, utter, proclaim) it. Try the Wordsmyth English Dictionary-Thesaurus (by Bob Parks, Philip Resnick, and Mark Olsen) for a source that both defines a word and suggests synonyms.
WARNING: a thesaurus is not enough! A thesaurus helps you generate ideas, but it doesn’t help you choose correctly among words with various shades of meaning. Your best bet is a good dictionary. The Oxford American Dictionary has a splendid digital version complete with extensive synonym discussions. If you recently bought a Macintosh, you’re in luck; the Oxford American Dictionary comes installed in all versions of OS 10. You’ll find it in your Applications folder; put it in your dock for easy access. Windows users are out of luck as far as a pre-installed dictionary is concerned, but you can go on-line and search several dictionaries simultaneously at Dictionary.com.
If you are a University of Chicago student, you also have free access to the on-line Oxford English Dictionary, known affectionately as the Mother of All Dictionaries. The OED may be a tad too cumbersome to function as a quick synonym guide, but if you are looking for examples of how a particular word has been used since it was first coined or imported into English, there simply is no better source, or even a vaguely equivalent source. If you have ever felt the slightest degree of intellectual curiosity about language, check it out.
Grammar myths: “rules” that aren’t.
When you were a young and impressionable child, you were probably told never to end a sentence with a preposition, or never to split an infinitive. Both of these practices are common in the spoken language. In order to avoid these “errors” in writing, many people contort their prose into knots of meaningless verbiage. The resulting sentences don’t sound right, but according to the “rules,” they are right — and what sounds right is actually wrong. Help! What should you do?
What you should do is be aware that not all the grammar advice out there is good advice. Some of it is outdated; it no longer reflects the consensus of educated speakers and writers. Some of it never reflected the consensus of educated speakers and writers. Consider, for example, the following frequently repeated injunction: “never split an infinitive.” This rule – an invention of nineteenth century grammarians – has been “broken” by great writers since the Middle Ages. Professional linguists have been snickering at it for decades, yet children are still taught this false “rule.”
Fortunately, if you’d like to base your own writing on the actual practice of great writers, there are plenty of resources out there to help you distinguish between bogus “rules” and the real thing. For quick guides to common grammar misconceptions, try The Living Dead at Grammarphobia.com (commercial site), Paul Brians’ list of Non-errors. or the Grammar Girl’s list of Top ten grammar myths.
On a similar note, when you tell your guests that “everyone should leave their umbrella in the hall,” you may be told that you’re guilty of an embarrassing error. “Everyone” is singular, but “their” is plural; in theory, you need “his” or “his or her” to agree with “everyone.” “Their,” purists argue, is in such circumstances a clumsy modern innovation that would shock great writers of the past.
For general reflections on when rules are useful and when they’re not, try Bill Poser’s On Prescriptivism. You’ll find entertaining and instructive discussion of this issue and many other language-related subjects at Language Log, a multi-author linguistics blog hosted at the University of Pennsylvania.
Classic style guides
If the advice we gave above about grammar rules arouses the ire of your Inner Curmudgeon, you may wish to consult on-line style guides that take a firmer view. Courtesy of Bartleby.com, a treasure trove of on-line texts (advertiser-supported), you may consult two classic guides to the English language on-line: Strunk’s Elements of Style (1918) and Fowler’s The King’s English (1908). A word of warning – these beautifully written books are on-line for a reason: they are so old that their copyrights have lapsed. Both are delightful to read, but new print editions now better reflect contemporary usage. Nevertheless, you may wish to consult the ur-Strunk or the ur-Fowler if a) you are motivated by purely historical interest, or b) you are irked by contemporary usage and long for better days.
For another blast from our literary past, H.L. Mencken’s The American Language (1919)is online in its entirety courtesy of Wikisource. Beautifully written and thought-provoking, the book describes the development of American English. It doesn’t reflect contemporary usage or recent linguistic research, but it’s well worth a look all the same.
Science and Technical Writing Guides
Writing in the sciences requires you to use standardized text structures you didn’t learn in English class – structures like proposals, lab reports, and scientific journal articles. Carol A. Vidoli’s Technical Report Writing (NASA) explains in detail the style and organization expected in NASA documents. Engineers and science students can seek advice at Virginia Tech’s Writing Guidelines for Engineering and Science Students, by Michael Alley, Leslie Crowley, Laura Grossenbacher, and Christene Moore. If you’re out to expand your vocabulary, the site also includes a Word of the Month page, which, as its name suggests, entertains readers by defining an unusual (but useful) word each month. (When we last looked, the word was “imbroglio” – an extremely useful word, in our view, for veterans of academic department meetings.)
For an extensive detailed description of the process of writing lab reports, try NCSU’s Labwrite for students. Molly Cage and Jonathan Wakefield’s Writing Biology Lab Reports (University of Richmond) offers well-written, well-documented information on how to do just that. Steven Neshyba’s† Template for Writing Chemistry Laboratory Reports (University of Puget Sound) is a brief set of guidelines for first-year students.
How do you punctuate a single sentence that includes an equation? What can you do to remain within NASA’s 200-word limit for abstracts? Poets never face these writing quandaries. But for scientists, they come up all the time, and NASA has kindly provided a source for you: Mary K. McCaskill’s Grammar, Capitalization, and Punctuation: A Handbook for Technical Writers and Editors is on-line in its entirety. (PDF download) You too can learn to punctuate from NASA! And you should: most sciences and “hard” social sciences (such as economics and statistics-oriented research) use an “open” style of punctuation that differs somewhat from the humanities-oriented standards you may have learned in your humanities classes. Ms. McCaskill’s work gives the secrets away.
English for non-native speakers (ESL)
A word of caution: surfer beware. Help for non-native speakers is plentiful on the net, but it comes in three flavors: non-profit, for-profit, and somewhere in between. The most authoritative non-profit sites are provided by various university writing centers. For-profit sites are provided by businesses specializing in language instruction. Since this links page is on a non-profit, university-based server, we don’t funnel students to for-profit sites. However, we make an exception for sites that fall “somewhere in between” the for-profit and non-profit models. Some sites provide both free and paid content, and the paid content often goes into considerably more depth than the free content. From the business’s perspective, the free content’s purpose is to advertise the paid content. From your perspective as a user, however, you may take advantage of the free content without going on to buy the paid content. If paid content looks tempting, keep in mind that the internet is vast and probably contains the information you’re looking for somewhere else — for free.
Non-profit ESL sources. Purdue University’s On-line Writing Lab has excellent handouts on matters of interest to ESL students: articles (a/an/the); count and non-count nouns (too many cupcakes vs. too much jello); prepositions (to the lighthouse, from here to eternity); and the approximately thirty (thirty!!) English verb tenses (I was sneaking into the movie when I saw Bob, who would have been at work if he hadn’t been fired an hour before).
Non-profit Metasites: The following metasites can help you locate additional ESL sites. George Washington University’s The ESL Study Hall has a selective and very informative listing that describes each link. GWU lists sites ranging from grammar and diction exercises to on-line journals written by and for ESL students. Another useful metasite is provided by the Journal for Teachers of English as a Second Language; their listing of links is comprehensive but does not describe the links.