|A small section of my reference library.|
Dictionaries go beyond telling you how to spell word correctly and what a word means. They also give you word history, syllabication (a fifty-cent word for how it breaks into syllables), labels (offensive, slang, obsolete), and more. Here are some popular dictionaries:
- Merriam-Webster Unabridged: A good unabridged dictionary will list far more words than a collegiate dictionary will. MW’s dictionaries tend to be more conservative, meaning its lexicographers want more evidence of a word’s stability before they add it to their dictionaries. You can subscribe to MWU online for a modest fee.
- American Heritage Dictionary: By far my favorite dictionary. AHD tends to add newer words at a quicker rate and it offers excellent usage notes. The notes tend to be descriptive, meaning they describe the issue and differing opinions but don’t dictate a solution. You can look up entries in AHD for free on Yahoo, get the dictionary on CD (beware: I had to give up my CD version when I switched to the 64-bit version of Vista; though I give Houghton Mifflin credit: when I reported to them I could no longer use the CD, they sent me an updated version for free. It will work for the 32-bit version of Vista, just not my less-popular 64-bit), or buy the paper version.
- Webster’s New World College Dictionary: The Associated Press’s official dictionary. If you strictly follow AP style, this is the dictionary for you.
- Word Spy and World Wide Words: These sites are good for very new terms. The men behind the scenes are serious about words and go to great lengths to define them.
Also check out industry-specific dictionaries and glossaries. Online, look for ones that have been edited by professionals. Webopedia is good for Internet-related terms. There’s an editorial staff behind it that ensures definitions are accurate. (Disclosure: I used to work for Webopedia’s parent corporation, though I never worked with the Webopedia folks.)
Sometimes you just need a synonym — or an antonym. A good thesaurus can help you out. Here are three I use:
- Thesaurus.com: A free resource.
- Visual Thesaurus: A neat concept, where you can see the relationship between words as distance. You can subscribe online or purchase the CD. (Again, my CD wouldn’t work with my 64-bit Vista.)
- Roget’s International Thesaurus: The granddaddy of thesauri (or thesauruses, if you prefer Anglicized plurals). This is the one your English teacher probably taught you to use. She was right: the current version has more than 330,000 words and phrases.
A style is meant to provide some consistency among a publisher’s content. It should be invisible rather than distracting. Which style guide you follow depends on what you’re writing about and who you are writing for.
- The Chicago Manual of Style: The heavyweight in American book publishing. In addition to the print edition, you can take advantage of its Web site: subscribe to the manual online (for a yearly fee), scan the table of contents, and search the Q&A.
- The Associated Press Stylebook 2009 (Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law): AP is used by newspapers and many other periodicals. It’s much simpler than Chicago, but it also has some rules that take into account the fact that AP sends stories over the newswire, which detests special marks. You can also subscribe to AP online, where new entries are added between printings, and search the “Ask the Editor” feature, a great help.
- Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association: If you publish in psychology or other soft sciences, this is the manual of choice.
- AMA Manual of Style: Similarly, if you publish in the medical field, the AMA is a must.
- The Gregg Reference Manual: The is a great reference for business style and offers a healthy section on grammar.
You’ll need at least one good guide on usage and/or grammar for when you run into sticky situations. Some are written in easy-to-understand English, others take a more comprehensive approach. Choose one that fits your style:
- Garner’s Modern American Usage: This is my favorite usage guide (and not just because I got to critique a very small section of the newest edition). Garner is thorough, readable, and realistic. While he’ll tell you the best way to do something, he’ll also admit when something’s a lost cause.
- Guide to Grammar & Style: If you need to look something up quickly, this free site is a good choice.
- Oxford Companion to English Language: From the editor of the multi-volume, formidable Oxford English Dictionary.
- Words into Type (3rd Edition): You don’t have to be in print to get a lot from this book. Its list of easily confused words is comprehensive and its grammar advice is solid.
- Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English: A grammar book written in, well, plain English. Easy to understand and easy to follow.
- Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within: A classic in writerly advice. Goldberg’s image of ideas composting in your mind has never left me.
- Writing without Teachers: Another classic that my college professors insisted we read. More than once.
- A writing group: Find one that fits your writing style or create your own. The Writer Magazine offers a searchable database. If you’re in New Hampshire, check out the New Hampshire Writers Project. It’s a great support network and it puts out a quarterly newsletter. (Full disclosure: NHWP is a client.)
What are your favorite resources? What else do you, as a writer, need? Let me know in the comments below!
(And, yes, I earn a few pennies if you use click on an Amazon link and buy a book. Support your local editor and click!)