What do you do when you have a grammar question?
You might check online—but many times you’ll find a few different, conflicting answers, which might just confuse you more.
You might ask a professor or a native English speaker—but even the most knowledgeable English teachers and speakers don’t have all the answers.
Or you might just check your textbook—but there’s a chance it won’t have the answer you’re looking for.
Don’t worry, though, since I have the perfect solution for all your grammar questions: Just look in a grammar reference book.
English grammar reference books are collections of rules for punctuation, capitalization, sentence structure, word usage and so much more.
These reference books are often used by professors, writers and other professionals who write and work in English.
But even if you’re “just” an English learner, you should consider getting one as well. Here’s why!
Why You Should Buy an English Grammar Reference Book
As I mentioned, it can be hard to find one good, correct answer to a grammar question. English is a constantly-changing language, which means there can be a few different answers to many grammar questions.
For example, if you’re writing a shopping list, you might wonder if you need a comma before the final item. Should you write it with a comma, like this:
“Eggs, milk, sugar, and bread”
Or should you write it without a comma, like this:
“Eggs, milk, sugar and bread”
That final comma in the first example is called the “Oxford comma” or the “serial comma,” and there’s actually a lot of debate about if you should use it or not.
Some resources, like The Write Practice, say the Oxford comma is very important. Others, like this article on Business Insider, argue that you should not use it. According to Mental Floss, it all depends on where you’re writing and what style guide you’re using; books often use the Oxford comma but magazines and newspapers (and FluentU’s blogs) do not.
So which answer do you trust?
Cases like this show why it can be very useful to have an English grammar reference book close by. A good grammar reference book would explain the issue and state when to use (or not to use) a rule. Even if your reference book chooses one answer over the other, if you always use the same book, at least you’ll be consistent—you’ll always follow the same rules in the same way. And most of those sites say that being consistent with your style is the most important thing.
How to Use an English Grammar Reference Book
Grammar reference books are not used the same way you would use a textbook. Instead of reading them from the beginning to the end, you focus on specific questions and sections. These books are used as a reference—something you look at when you need information. Here are some tips for how to use your new English grammar reference book.
- Use the index. Every grammar reference book has an index. An index is a part at the end of the book that alphabetically lists every major topic mentioned in the book, as well as which page to find it on. For your question about the Oxford comma, for example, you can turn to the back of the book and look for “comma,” or even “Oxford comma.” The numbers in the index show you which pages have the information you need.
- If you’re not sure about a rule, look it up. There are times when you might feel unsure about how to write something, like where to put an apostrophe or whether to capitalize a certain word. These are perfect things to look up in a grammar book! Seeing the written rule and then using it can help you remember it better.
- Use the book to learn official rules. Native English speakers don’t always know the grammar rules they follow automatically. As an English learner, it can be helpful to understand why things work the way they do in the English language. Instead of memorizing sentence structures, learn the rules. This will help you form excellent sentences in the future.
Most importantly, you probably shouldn’t use a grammar book as your only English learning resource. It should be used in addition to other resources.
You can use it to read about a rule after learning it in class, or after reading it in your textbook. You can look up a grammar rule after you hear someone use it, or notice it being used in writing. Reinforce your learning (make it stronger) by understanding the grammar rules the language is built on!
7 Tips to Find the Perfect English Grammar Reference Book for You
Unlike other English reference and learning books, you only need one grammar reference book, so it’s important to choose one that really works for you.
I’ve put together some tips for choosing the perfect English grammar book for you—as well as plenty of book recommendations to choose from!
Here are 7 things to look for when choosing an English grammar reference book.
1. Check the Edition Number
Since English changes often, so do its reference books. When you’re picking out a book, make sure you have the latest edition, to avoid outdated information.
- “Practical English Usage: 3rd Edition” by Michael Swan.
The first edition of “Practical English Usage” was published in 1980, so it makes sense to get the more recent 3rd edition from 2005.
2. Check the Publication Year
Even if a book has an edition number, look at the year it was published as well. As we saw in the first tip, you usually want your reference book to be as recent as possible. The more recently it was published, the more up-to-date the information will be.
- “Complete English Grammar Rules: Examples, Exceptions, Exercises, and Everything You Need to Master Proper Grammar” by Farlex International.
This book of grammar rules and terms was published in 2016, which means the information contained inside will include the most recent additions to the language.
3. Check for a Digital Version of the Book
Physical books are amazing, but it can be useful to have a digital copy of a reference book. This gives you the option to take the book with you—some of these books have hundreds of pages!—and to use the search feature on your computer or mobile device to quickly find an answer.
- “Cambridge Grammar of English Paperback with CD-ROM: A Comprehensive Guide” by Ronald Carter and Michael McCarthy.
This reference book comes with a digital version in the form of a CD-ROM, which makes it much easier and faster to find what you’re looking for.
4. Check the Price
How much are you planning to spend on this reference book? A grammar reference book is an investment—that means it’s something you might spend a little more money on because it will be useful for a long time.
Still, even if you find the perfect reference book, you should compare prices before you buy it. Some expensive books are very similar to other, less expensive ones.
- “The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language” by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum.
This version of the reference book sells for over $200 new, and even most used copies cost over $100! To be fair, it does have 1,860 pages, but that’s probably more grammar than most people will ever need.
- “A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar” by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum.
This student grammar book, which is also published by Cambridge, is a much cheaper and much shorter (only 322 pages) version of the more expensive reference book by the same authors.
5. Check What Information Is Included
Not all reference books are the same. Some books contain a full list of grammar rules, while others focus on information that would help English learners.
Before you buy a reference book, look inside to see how it’s organized and what kind of information is included. If you’re shopping online, find the book on Amazon. Many books sold on Amazon allow you to “look inside” and check their index or contents, so you know exactly what to expect.
- “The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar” by Sylvia Chalker and Edmund Weiner.
This is a grammar reference book, but it focuses on defining grammar terms instead of explaining grammar rules.
- “McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage” by Mark Lester and Larry Beason.
This is a more traditional type of reference book, so you would use it a bit differently from the Oxford Dictionary.
6. Check the Focus of the Book
Instead of getting one big book, you might choose to get a few books that focus (or concentrate) on one part of grammar. When a book is about something more specific, it can include even more examples and information about the topic.
- “The Best Punctuation Book, Period” by June Casagrande.
This book explains in great detail how to use each punctuation mark in different situations. It’s not a full reference book, but it is an excellent resource for learning punctuation rules.
7. Check How the Book Is Organized
Some books just list the rules, some books give plenty of correct and incorrect examples and some others even include questions and quizzes. Before you buy a book, make sure it’s organized in a way that you understand.
- “The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation” by Jane Straus, Lester Kaufman and Tom Stern.
Along with a list of grammar rules, this book includes real-world examples and even grammar rule quizzes.
- “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing” by Mignon Fogarty.
While this book does not have as much information as some other reference books, instead of simply listing the rules, it’s written in a friendlier, more conversational way.
The example books above are just a small selection of the many different grammar books you can purchase today.
In addition to following these tips, you can ask an English professional for a recommendation, and be sure to check the reviews of grammar books on Amazon.
You’ll only need one or two English grammar reference books on your (physical or digital) bookshelf, but they’ll certainly be an important addition to your English learning resources.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn English with real-world videos.