Lynne Truss’s top 10 books for wordsmiths

Author and broadcaster Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation is this year’s surprise Christmas bestseller. Her three novels, With One Lousy Free Packet of Seed, Tennyson’s Gift and Going Loco, along with a collection of columns, Making the Cat Laugh, will all be reissued by Profile next summer.

1. A Concise Dictionary of English Idioms, compiled by BA Phythian

Dictionaries of idioms are invaluable to people who love English, because they remind us how figurative our everyday language is. Definitions may seem redundant (“arm of the law – criminal law, personified by the police”), but open this book at any page and just revel in the imagery: not see the wood for the trees, run to seed, send packing, take leave of one’s senses, separate the sheep from the goats, whited sepulchre, serve him right.

2. The Oxford Guide to Style by RM Ritter

This is the successor to the classic Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers, and the Bible of those who toil in print. Those who want to know the difference between “galley proof”, “page proof”, “clean proof”, “author’s proof”, “marked proof”, “first proof”, “collated proof”, “revised proof”, “scatter proof” and “final proof” can confidently refer to its pages. This book deals with everything from the nitty gritty of the words on the page to the responsibility of the publisher in a case of “negligent misstatement”. In its latest incarnation, it is quite beautifully produced and – at over 600 pages – an absolute steal at £17.99.

3. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage by RW Burchfield

To consult Fowler is to consult the oracle. Those of us who get worked up about English (“But I don’t understand the double possessive!”) can turn to Fowler: he smoothes one’s fevered brow. Looking up “enormity, enormousness”, for example, I find two columns of closely printed reasoning, and the useful conclusion: “It is recommended that for the present ‘enormity’ should not be used in plain contexts where the physical size of an object is the only feature involved: in other words, one should eschew the type ‘the enormity of the pyramids’. It is more difficult to find fault with ‘enormity’ used of the size or immensity or overwhelmingness of abstract concepts, especially when any element of departure from a legal, moral or social norm is present or is implied.” I can’t tell you what a relief that is.

4. The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage by Kingsley Amis

Cantankerous but very enjoyable rulings on the state of the language. Personally, I wish Amis had not included the breathtakingly misogynist section on “womanese” (evidently women “are always getting set phrases wrong”). But there is much joy to be had elsewhere in the book. Where would we be without Amis’s brilliantly abusive classification system of “berks and wankers”? (Berks being those who care less than us about the fate of the language; wankers being those who care more.)

5. The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase, Saying, & Quotation, edited by Elizabeth Knowles

First: note the very prominent “Oxford comma” in the title of this book. What a big fat one, eh? To be honest, I haven’t referred to this book as much as I thought I would, but it’s an interesting concept for a reference book: to put together quotations with proverbs and phrases. Thus, under “meaning”, there are quotations from Milton and so on (“Where more is meant than meets the ear”), then proverbs (“Every picture tells a story”) and finally phrases (“all my eye and Betty Martin”).

6. Le Mot Juste: The Penguin Dictionary of Foreign Terms and Phrases, edited by Eugene Ehrlich

Very comprehensive listing of foreign words and phrases. I am always shocked if there’s something it doesn’t include. Although I have never searched for a phrase for “When they are silent, they cry loudest”, it is good to know of the existence of the Latin “Cum tacent, clamant”, which really does say it better, somehow.

7. The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr and EB White

The classic American style guide, with its emphasis on “cleanliness, accuracy and brevity” and teaches “Omit needless words!” Marvellously out of touch with modern usage, it won’t allow “contact” as a verb. The entry for “clever” reads: “Note that the word means one thing when applied to people, another when applied to horses. A clever horse is a good-natured one, not an ingenious one.” Well, I didn’t know that.

8. English Our English (and How to Sing It) by Keith Waterhouse

Another classic, full of good practical guidance on the elements of writing, from a great wordsmith. Very good on wandering participles, such as: “Being in need of a paint job, I got £200 knocked off the list price”. Also very sound on punctuation. The book’s conclusion is a typical piece of Waterhousean wisdom: “If, after all this advice, a sentence still reads awkwardly, then what you have there is an awkward sentence. Demolish it and start again.”

9. Mother Tongue: The English Language by Bill Bryson

This is a book packed with love, but sometimes rather frighteningly erudite. For example, Bryson can’t explain the principles of rhyming slang (china plate=mate; loaf of bread=head) without mentioning that when the rhyme comes from a part of the phrase that has been dropped (titfer=hat; tom=jewellery) this is technically known as “hemiteleia”.

10. Oxford Dictionary of English (second edition)

The latest one-volume OED has no entry for “hemiteleia”. Damn. Can’t check up on Bryson, then. However, it is a splendid and beautiful dictionary, with helpful little boxes to explain thorny issues of usage. Looking up “enormity” (I know, I’m obsessed), I find a very tolerant attitude towards such phrases as “the enormity of French hypermarkets” which, I must admit, sends me back to Fowler for comfort.


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