Everyone who's every taken any sort of course in writing probably knows about The Elements of Style, the little book originally written by William Strunk Jr. and expanded by E.B. White. What you may not know is that Bartleby.com has an on-line version of this book as originally written by Prof. Strunk. The Suranee University of Technology also has an on-line version of the book. (Of the two, I prefer the Bartleby version because it's searchable.)
Roy Jacobsen calls The Free Dictionary "[a]n all-in-one reference library and search engine." Roy's recommendation is good enough for me. Go there and you'll find an English dictionary; specialized dictionaries for computing, medicine, law, and finance; two encyclopedias (Columbia and Wikipedia); and many other interesting things. I'm thinking about making it the home page of my browser.
Rhetoric has gotten a bad name lately; the word is often used to denote mere talk, unaccompanied by action (e.g. here). While rhetoric can indeed denote "insincere or grandiloquent language," its primary definition is "the art of speaking or writing effectively: as a : the study of principles and rules of composition formulated by critics of ancient times b : the study of writing or speaking as a means of communication or persuasion."1 If you are a legal writer interested in writing more persuasively (and what legal writer isn't? 2), here are a couple of rhetorical resources:3
Silva Rhetoricae, by BYU's Dr. Gideon Burton, is an on-line guide to terms of classical and renaissance rhetoric. Silva means forest, "the metaphor for this site. Like a forest, rhetoric provides tremendous resources for many purposes. However, one can easily become lost in a large, complex habitat (whether it be one of wood or of wit). The organization of this central page and the hyperlinks within individual pages should provide a map, a discernible trail, to lay hold of the utility and beauty of this language discipline."
Virtual Salt's Handbook of Rhetorical Devices "contains definitions and examples of more than sixty traditional rhetorical devices, all of which can still be useful today to improve the effectiveness, clarity, and enjoyment of your writing." It's one branch of the Virtual Salt web site, where, if you scroll down, you'll find many useful links, including Tools for Writers. The site was created and is maintained by Robert Harris, who also has a Virtual Salt blog, where he shares the life and struggles of his schizophrenic friend, Howie.
A great way to appear well read without actually being well read is to dress up your writing with quotations. Here are a couple of places where you can find them.
My favorite source for quotations is The Quotations Page. Quotations are classified by author (from Aeschylus to Frank Zappa) and by subject. Want to find a quotation about computers? TQP has 27 of them. (If you've ever wondered where I find those space-filling quotations sprinkled throughout Certworthy, now you know.) Don't miss the weblog, which dates back to [drumroll] 1997!
If you can't find it on TQP, then you may be able to find it on Bartleby.com's quotation collection. Here you'll find Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (11,000 entries), the Columbia World of Quotations (65,000 entries), and two other collections.
"This book is designed to inform you about current
problems in English usage so you can make intelligent decisions when
communicating." Included are chapters on grammar, style, word choice, and gender (sexist language and assumptions). It even has a chapter on e-mail, which includes tables of commonly used abbreviations and emoticons.
The Bartleby.com reference page "combines the best of both contemporary and classic reference works into the most comprehensive public reference library ever published on the web." For any writer, it's worth bookmarking.
If you know how a thing works, you can use that thing more effectively. This basic truth applies to the English language. Its rules of grammar are not just things you must follow to avoid appearing uneducated. Grammar is the user's manual of the English language. Know that manual, and you'll know how to use the language more effectively. This is the premise behind two books by C. Edward Good, either of which can serve as your user's manual for the English language.
Put another way: other writing books tell you what works; these books tell you how and why those things work.
In the English language, functional variation allows a word to shift from one grammatical function to another. For example, a noun can function as an adjective (candy story), and a verb can function as a noun (apt quotes). Bryan A. Garner, Garner's Modern American Usage 371 (2003). But in colloquial 21st-century American speech, functional variation sometimes goes too far. In this amusing article, Tom Alleman demonstrate functional variation in the extreme. Here's a taste:
Where to begin? I resolutioned that I should interface with my staff immediately to information them about my decision, so I memorandumed them about it. My assistant e-mailed me her concerns, so we evaluationed our options carefully and conclusioned that we would partner in a program to implement nounization.
(Via Legal Writing Prof Blog.)
The Economist's style guide is an on-line version of the style book given to all journalists at The Economist. Its usage is British, not American, but most of its advice applies on both sides of the Atlantic.
Bryan A. Garner's advice on document design isn't in any one of his books; it's in several of them:
- A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage 289-90 (2d ed. 1995).
- Garner's Modern American Usage 266-267 (2003).
- A Dictionary of Modern American Usage 219-20 (1998).
- Legal Writing in Plain English §§ 41-45 (2001).
- The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style § 4 (2002). This one contains the fullest treatment of the topic.
If you follow Garner's advice, you'll do the following things: