I recently finished a pretty good book, The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of ‘Proper’ English from Shakespeare to South Park, by Rutgers Professor Jack Lynch. It provides a helpful history of the English language dictionary (other European languages had dictionaries long before English did) as well as a lucid assessment of the debates regarding usage, grammar, and vocabulary that started almost as soon as Samuel Johnson published his founding, epic work.
In these debates Lynch finds himself, more or less, on the “descriptivist” rather than the “prescriptivist” side; that is, he believes that dictionaries and grammars ought to show how people actually use words and grammar, not how well-bred scolds believe they *should* use such things. The word “ain’t” is just fine with Lynch, for instance, as is ending sentences with prepositions, as is confusing “comprise” with “compose,” as is pronouncing “ask” as “ax” (as Chaucer sometimes did).
By and large I am with Lynch, although certain usages will always irritate me: using the word “nauseous” to mean “nauseated” rather than “nauseating,” for instance, and using “peruse” to mean “skim” rather than “to study closely.” Oh well!
No matter what your stance is in this debate, there is no question that, to be regarded as a professional in the English-speaking word, one has to have a very solid handle on traditional, modern grammar and usage as it has been prescribed in your school and as it is expected in most workplaces. You have no choice.
I’ve been an editor my entire life, and I find I still always need the big Chicago Manual of Style on my desk at home to make sure I am following the straight and narrow. But, what if I’m not near my desk – on the SkyTrain, for instance, or walking through Stanley Park with my notebooks (and iPhone)? Well, there is lots of good help online. I give you:
Very helpful, fun grammar websites:
The Guide to Grammar and Writing isn’t *quite* as fun, but it is equally helpful.