Writing Resource 6/100: Practical English Usage

This list of a hundred resources is, as I’ve previously written, going to be a mixed bag of stuff. Many websites will tell you the classic writing manuals you should have in your possession, and there’s a fair chance a few of them will appear in this list at some point. But as I get started with my favourites – particularly within the reference books I use, I’ll be going slightly left-field.

A couple of full disclosure points to begin with.

  1. My experience and current version in use is the 3rd edition. The 4th edition of Practical English Usage (PEU) was published in late 2016, and I have to admit I haven’t yet purchased the new edition..but I fully intend to – there was a time when I got these books at staff discount, alas no more, but believe me it’s worth the money.
  2. PEU is published by my old employer Oxford University Press. Over the years I’ve sold copies of the book into schools across the UK, Scandinavia and beyond. I’ve done so through face-to-face selling, presentations, Direct Mail and more. But I have no connection with OUP now, and today I refer to this book as a constant reader of it rather than as a publisher’s employee…
  3. I always get nervous writing about the qualities of a grammar book when I’m conscious there’s a possibility readers could say, “Wow, you’re not practicing what you say you learned from it are you?”

Just to be clear on those points up front.

Ahead of a presentation on publishing I’m giving shortly (more news to follow soon), I asked what questions people had about the publishing business in the hope I may be able to answer at least a couple of them.

One question asked was “Is grammar important?”

Now, there’s probably a very long answer to that question involving the editorial process, the quality of an idea versus the final execution and so on and so on…my shorter answer was “Duh…”

Whether you’re writing for yourself, for friends, or in the hope of getting published, you really should be paying attention to grammar – not just because it will risk immediate rejection from any agent or publisher you’re approaching, but because…well, who wants to wade their way through a book whose message or narrative is obscured by grammar which distracts from or even destructs what it is trying to say?

Michael Swan‘s Practical English Usage was first published in 1980, by OUP and is considered one of the key reference books for English Language Learners and English Language Teachers. I know that as a relatively inexperienced teacher heading out to work in classes in Japan back in 1991 I was painfully aware of my own limited grasp of grammar – coming as I did from an educational period where it was deemed unfashionable to put such ‘labels’ on ‘creative writing’. PEU was a vital aid for me in being able to use the correct terminology around language I’d used all my life but was trying to explain to language learners.

But PEU  does not claim to be a complete grammar reference: there are plenty of books out there that will claim to be, or at least try to be so. The clue is in the title: this book is a guide to practical English – so it’s neither a full reference, a dictionary, or an etymological guide. What it IS is a guide to everyday usage, with examples and simple explanations – this is where the ELT background of the book makes it so useful for writers: plain and simple to use, with a minimum of grandeur.

The reason I keep a copy of it on my shelf and refer to it frequently when I’m writing are all the other things it offers as well, which are in no way limited to language learning or teaching, but are vital to any of us trying to make writing…well, readable.

The explanations, clarifications and reminders of those things that we do (or hope to do) naturally, even if we’re not sure why…

Here’s one quick example, from the ‘common mistakes’ introduction in the book (copyright OUP and the author) – and if you’re concerned that as a native English speaker (if you are), or have ‘perfect’ English (if you’re not…or maybe if you are…) this book will not be relevant to you, consider how easily you know these, could explain them, or write them correctly without at least a moment’s hesitation…

From the introduction of PEU 4th Edition (Michael Swan/ OUP)
From the introduction of PEU 4th Edition (Michael Swan/ OUP)

Here’s one more example of the type of article I find so useful in the book. I can’t count the number of times I have reviewed new writers’ works and struggled to explain the reason that ‘their new beautiful home’ doesn’t sound quite right…

adjectives
A sample on Adjectives from Michael Swan’s PEU (copyright OUP/ Michael Swan)

And one last thing. As those who have read some of my stories in Basement Tales, and elsewhere, you’ll know I have a tendency to set a number of pieces in the US – PEU provides some invaluable guidance on differences between British and American English that may help you avoid some of the more common goofs/ gaffes…

Practical English Usage is one of the most respected, and with more than 2 million copies sold, best selling English Language Teaching books ever written, but don’t pigeon hole it as ‘just’ an ELT material: take a Look Inside on Amazon, and I believe you’ll see why I’ve included in this list of Writing Resources…

You can buy it from most good bookstores, or from Amazon here:

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