My five favorite reference books for writers

A printed book is sometimes the best place to find a solution to your question about writing style, punctuation, or grammar.

Here are my five favorite reference books. I have updated this list because my favorites have changed over time, most notably with the elevation of Garner’s Modern American Usage from the “honorable mention” list.

  1. Edit Yourself: A manual for everyone who works with words by Bruce Ross-Larson. Everyone should own this small, inexpensive, easy-to-use book. I use Part II, the back of the book, the most. It lists troublesome words in alphabetical order. It’ll help you cut pretentious words and resolve problems such as deciding between “which” and “that.” Part I describes and offers solutions to problems common in everyday writing. Buy it today!
  2. Garner’s Modern American Usage by Bryan Garner. This book runs over 900 pages in length, so it covers just about any question you may ask. When I first published this list of favorite books, I wrote: “But it’s so darned technical I only turn to it as a last resort.” How times have changed! Now it’s the first book I turn to when tackling problems such as “Treasurys vs. Treasuries — Which is the right spelling?” I rank it behind Ross-Larson’s book only because I think Edit Yourself will be much more useful for most of my readers.
  3. The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications by Amy Einsohn. I didn’t own this book when I first compiled my list of favorite books. Like Garner’s book, this delves more into the nuances of different grammar issues than book readers who aren’t grammar nerds.
  4. The Associated Press Stylebook. If you’ve ever heard an editor say, “We follow AP style,” they’re talking about the print or online edition of this style book. I rarely check my print edition because I prefer the constantly updated online edition, which I complement with a subscription to the online Webster’s New World College Dictionary. There’s also subscription software, Styleguard, for checking adherence with this guide. (I stopped using the software for reasons described in my blog post about Styleguard.) You can follow AP style on Twitter at @APStylebook or on Facebook.
  5. The Grammar Bible by Michael Strumpf and Auriel Douglas. This book gives plain English explanations of vexing issues of grammar and more.

Honorable mention

  • The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) was my favorite reference book for many years. If you’re writing a book or Ph.D. dissertation (as I was doing when I bought this book), rather than blog posts, articles, or other marketing pieces, this is an essential reference. It’s also useful for topics such as tables and other exhibits, which aren’t addressed by AP style. You can also subscribe online to the manual, get it integrated into PerfectIt proofreading software (which I’ve blogged about in “My three main software tools for proofreading,” and follow it on Facebook or Twitter.
  • Words into Type, based on studies by Marjorie E. Skillin, Robert M. Gay, and other authorities. Like CMOS, this book is aimed at individuals preparing manuscripts for publication. This fat classic from 1974 used to be my second “go to” reference book when flummoxed by a question of style, punctuation, or grammar. The importance of this book fell for me when I became a convert to AP style.
  • The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. If you care about good writing, you should read this classic at least once. An early edition is online at Bartleby.com.

Your favorites?

If you’re passionate about good writing, you’ve probably got a favorite reference that I’ve overlooked. Please tell me about it by answering this poll question.

 

Disclosure: If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I provide links to books only when I believe they have value for my readers.

Updated: November and December 2021

Top posts from 2022’s first quarter

Check out my top posts from the first quarter!

They’re a mix of practical tips on grammar (#1, #5), social media (#2), blogging (#3), and writing (#4).

My posts that attracted the most views during 2021’s first quarter:

  1. Pronoun question: is the Fed “it” or “they”?–This is an ongoing issue. I feel strongly about the right answer, but some investment professionals feel strongly about using the other pronoun.
  2. Why I’m not using LinkedIn Creator Mode
  3. Legal danger for financial bloggers: Two misconceptions, three resources, one suggestion
  4. Go from short to long!
  5. So at the start of a sentence

“In order to” versus “to”

Is there ever a good reason to write “in order to” instead of “to”? When I posted this poll on LinkedIn, I expected the answer to be “no.” However, I did some research and was surprised by the results.

in order to vs to image

Go with “to” most of the time

Generally, it’s better to write “to” than “in order to.”

Shorter sentences are typically easier to understand. That’s why I’ve devoted many words to suggesting how you can make your writing more concise. In fact, that’s a focus of my investment commentary webinar. I’ve given many examples of how to shorten your writing in “Word and phrase substitutions for economical writers.”

As the Doris & Bertie website says: “‘In order to’ isn’t more precise. It doesn’t provide any extra meaning – just extra wordage for your reader to trawl through to get to the important words in the sentence.”

However, there are exceptions to the rule of shorter is better.

 

Clarity may require “in order to”

In rare cases, “in order to” must be used for clarity. Here’s an example I found in Amy Einsohn’s The Copyeditor’s Handbook:

CLEAR: “Congress modified the administration’s proposal in order to exempt small businesses.”

UNCLEAR: “Congress modified the administration’s proposal to exempt small businesses.”

In the first sentence, it’s clear that Congress acted to exempt small businesses. The second sentence could mean that. Or, it could mean that the administration wanted to exempt small businesses and Congress acted against that.

Rhythm may benefit from “in order to”

Sometimes a sentence just sounds better with the addition of “in order to.” In response to my LinkedIn poll, Paul Bobnak gave me this example from the preamble to the U.S. constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

What will YOU do?

Will you adjust your use of “in order to” after reading this post?

I will continue to ruthlessly trim most instances of “in order to” from my clients’ writing, and I will sometimes leave them in place.

 

Disclosure: If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I provide links to books only when I believe they have value for my readers.

 

 

Break your chains!

Writing with fewer words sometimes results in harder-to-understand sentences. That can be the case with noun chains—when one noun piles upon another to modify the noun at the end of the chain.

“Nouns used as adjectives often slip out of a writer’s control, producing impenetrable chains,” writes Jan Venolia in Write Right! She mentions “urban public hospital out-patient clinics” as an example of a noun chain.

The basic way to fix noun chains

To fix a noun chain, “look for the noun at the end of the chain. Move it forward and turn the other chunks into short prepositional phrases,” says Venolia.

Thus, the noun chain above would become “out-patient clinics sponsored by urban public hospitals.” The new phrase is longer than the original, but easier for the reader to understand.

More ways to fix noun chains

Raymond Ward suggests on his blog, the (new) legal writer, that hyphens can make noun chains easier to understand. “If you have a three-noun chain, the easiest solution is to hyphenate the first two nouns,” he says. For example, “cost recovery action” can become “cost-recovery action.”

Here’s another great suggestion from Ward: “If the last noun in the chain is generic, such as process, situation, activity, and the like, try deleting it to see whether any meaning has been lost.” For example, “afternoon thunderstorm activity” can become “afternoon thunderstorms.” That’s a win!

Ward also gives examples of replacing a two-noun combination with one word, changing “television antenna manufacturing facility” to “television-antenna factory.” I like how Ward thinks.

Find and break your noun chains!

When you’re writing or editing, please look for noun chains and break them when appropriate.

 

Disclosure: If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I provide links to books only when I believe they have value for my readers.

 

So at the start of a sentence

I am far from perfect in my knowledge of grammar, as I admitted in “Confessions of a grammar ignoramus.” So I wasn’t surprised to learn that I’ve been making a mistake when starting a sentence with “so.” Apparently, I shouldn’t have been putting a comma after “so” at the beginning of a sentence.

No comma

So is a good word for beginning a sentence,” says Garner’s Modern American Usage because “The shorter word affords a brisker pace” compared with words such as “however,” “additionally,” or “therefore.” Garner doesn’t specifically opine on whether to use a comma, but none of his examples use one.

The Chicago Manual of Style calls for not using a comma in most cases when “so” begins a sentence. Please note its explanation of exceptions to this rule.

chicago manual of style on so at the start of a sentence

Use comma

If you believe in using a comma after an initial “so,” you have some support. It’s a conjunctive adverb, so it must be followed by a comma, says Syelle Graves, in a guest post on “Is Starting a Sentence with ‘So’ Condescending?” on the Grammar Girl blog.

Both Microsoft’s grammar checker and Grammarly software flagged my lack of a comma after an initial “so” as a problem. However, both of those automated checkers make plenty of mistakes, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, including in “How I use Grammarly to improve my writing.” Moreover, note that the wording of Grammarly’s comment leaves open the possibility that you might not need a comma.

Grammarly so

Pick your style

You can make a case for using or skipping commas in this situation. I’m starting to skip them because my clients are fond of multi-clausal sentences. I figure that fewer commas will make their sentences easier to absorb.

Pronoun question: is the Fed “it” or “they”?

As I read market and economic commentary, I see a split between writers who use “it” vs. “they” to refer to the Fed. Opinions can run strong about pronoun questions like this. To help you decide on the right pronoun, I ran a poll asking my readers which they prefer. I also did some additional research, which I share below.

Is the fed it or they infographic

“It” vs. “they” poll

I asked:

Do you refer to the Federal Reserve or the Federal Open Market Committee as “it” or “they”? For example, would you say “It raised rates” or “They raised rates”?

Here are the results

Poll results on pronoun question for the FedA majority (55%) of respondents use “it,” followed by 20% who avoid using a pronoun for the Fed, 15% who use “they,” and 5% who answered “other.”

The case for “it”

Organizations are not people. That’s why I go with “it.” My readers in the “it” camp agreed. Below are some of their comments on this pronoun question (with the names of the people who commented, when they provided them):

  • Corporations and government agencies and entities are referred to as it not they. It’s the law. Lol. I’m a Wall St editor. Pet peeve!
  • I use “it” because I am considering them an entity and not a group of people.
  • It has one voice by a single decision. Each member has their own opinion and speeches. Members are the “they” but the institution is “it.”
  • I handle it the same way as I would for any institution or corporation—as an entity, not a person. And while it is made up of people, the opinions of the institution do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the individuals who work there.
  • Without an ‘s’ on the end, ‘group’ is singular and is, therefore, an ‘it.’ The only exception to this that I can think of is ‘people,’ a collective and thus a plural.
  • While not an expert, I’d consider the Fed to be a collective noun so singular. If it was ‘senior figures at the Fed’ or ‘Fed chiefs’ or something I’d use ‘they’, and this is what I’d be perhaps more inclined to do.—Michael Stark, AAATrade Ltd
  • The Fed, like a corporate entity, seems like a singular it.—Martin Goldberg, Ph.D.

I did some research. Here’s what the Online AP Stylebook says (note “The committee set its agenda):

AP Style collective nouns pronoun question

The Chicago Manual of Style says, “A collective noun takes a singular pronoun if the members are treated as a unit {the audience showed its appreciation}.”

Collective nouns are treated differently in British English. From Garner’s American Usage, I know that collective nouns are typically treated as singular in American English, but as plural in British English.

The Wall Street Journal is another source that I rely on for style guidelines, as I’ve explained in “Financial jargon killer: The Wall Street Journal.” Here’s an example from “Kaplan Says Fed Should Begin Reducing Its Balance Sheet ‘Very Soon’”: “The Federal Reserve should begin shrinking its balance sheet ‘very soon,’ Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas President Robert Kaplan said Friday.”

The case for “they”

The case for “they” rests on usage and the way that people think about the entity. Many investment professionals refer to the Fed as “they” because they are thinking about the individuals who make up the FOMC.  One survey respondent explained his or her preference for “they” by saying, “The Fed is a group of people.”

In “People Versus Entities,” Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty suggests that if you want to use “they” you should refer to the people who make up the entity. Here’s her example of how to bring the people into the sentence: “Today, the MegaCo directors, who just gave themselves a raise, laid off 1,000 factory workers.”

Fogarty also says:

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage gives a lot of credit for the growing use of plural pronouns to advertising and PR people at large corporations trying to “present a more human and less monolithic face to the public.” Nevertheless, most grammarians lean in the direction of companies being nameless, faceless entities that should be treated as singular nouns and not personified.

Style guidelines

If the organization that you’re writing for has style guidelines, check to see what it says about the Fed. Given that some investment professionals feel strongly about referring to the Fed as “they,” the company may endorse “they” over “it.”

Here’s what one respondent said:

The organization’s style guide always rules. If the organization does not have a preference for this situation, I urge them to add it to the style guide for consistency. My default is the plural pronoun.

Avoiding the pronoun question

What do you do if you’re a writer or editor who works for people who can’t agree on which pronoun to use for the Fed?

Alana Garrop of Savos Investments said, “I keep the pronouns out of the conversation: ‘The Federal Open Market Committee raised rates at the June meeting.'” Notice how she avoided using “its” or “their” by referring to “the June meeting.”

This is a great workaround when choosing “it” or “they” means you’re going to offend someone. It reminds me of the workaround to avoid deciding on “Treasuries” vs. “Treasurys.”

 

Note: I’ve updated this post, which originally ran in December 2017.

 

 

 

3 times to use passive verbs in your writing

I usually slash passive verbs in articles that I edit. (Don’t know what a passive verb is? Read this.) But sometimes I leave them in place. When? When the sentence should emphasize the person or thing that the verb is acting on. Or, when you don’t want to identify the person or thing that is taking an action.

Use the passive voice in the following three instances.

1. When you want to avoid identifying the actor

Imagine that you’re communicating with a client who mistakenly deposited money into the wrong account. Do you want to emphasize the client’s mistake, as if to say, “Hey, stupid, you put money in the wrong account”? No, it’s better to say, “Money was deposited in the wrong account,” and then describe how to fix the problem.

A classic example of failing to identify the actor is the sentence: “Mistakes were made.” Sentences like that make me want to shake the author. I want to yell, “Tell me who made the mistake!” I sometimes see such sentences in descriptions of investment underperformance. I don’t agree with that approach. I think it’s better to identify the reason for underperformance and say what you’re going to do about it. I discussed that in “Four lessons from Wasatch Funds on reporting underperformance.”

2. When you don’t know the identity of the actor

Sometimes the problem with active verbs isn’t that you don’t want to identify the actor. It’s that you don’t know what the heck caused the action. For example, “The price of PQR stock was depressed.”

Perhaps that’s a bad example because you can usually find a pundit to opine on the reason for a stock price movement. However, perhaps you want to be honest about your not really knowing the reason for the stock price decline.

3. When you want to highlight the topic over the actor

Sometimes the actor is less important than the subject that it’s acting on. For example: “The conditions are forming for a dramatic decline in stock prices.” In this case, the factors driving the decline are less important than the imminent decline.

Stay active most of the time

Despite the fact that passive verbs are sometimes appropriate, please go easy on using them. Active verbs are usually better.

 

Go from short to long!

Rearranging elements of a sentence “from short to long, from simple to compound, increases the ability of the reader to understand them,” says Bruce Ross-Larson in Edit Yourself: A Manual for everyone who works with words, one of my favorite editing books.

Ross-Larson has three related rules.

  • First, count the syllables. This will let you identify shorter words to put first.
  • Then, “if the number of syllables is the same, count the letters.” That can be a tie-breaker.
  • Finally, “Put the compound elements last.” As an example, he suggests that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” reads better than “liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and life.” I guess that’s why the Declaration of Independence uses the suggested order.

Of course, these three rules don’t always apply. As Ross-Larson says, don’t follow the rules if that’ll:

  • Put elements out of chronological or sequential order
  • Create unintended modifiers
  • Upset a familiar or explicit order, such as “the birds and the bees” or going in order from more conservative to less conservative asset classes

Small changes like this can make your writing easier to read. That means you’re likely to convey your message more effectively.

 

 

Disclosure: If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I provide links to books only when I believe they have value for my readers.

Can you use numerals at the start of a sentence?

One of the first writing rules I learned was that I can’t use numerals to start a sentence. But in recent years, my certainty about that rule has been shaken.

Headlines can start with numerals

First, I learned that it’s OK to start an article headline with a numeral, at least in Associated Press (AP) style, because AP style only uses numerals—not spelled out numbers—in headlines. I operate mostly in a world of AP style. A headline isn’t a sentence, but it’s the next closest thing.AP StyleBook

Years and 401(k) as exceptions in AP style

More recently, I stumbled across this rule in the online AP Stylebook (subscription required): “Years are an exception to the general rule in numerals that a figure is not used to start a sentence: 2013 was a very good year.” Wow, that’s a big change for me!

Also, it turns out that I can start a sentence with the term “401(k),” and be in compliance with AP style. Here’s the relevant rule:

At the start of a sentence

CMOS takes a different approach

I can explain my ignorance partly in terms of my learning style rules in college and graduate school under teachers who used the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS). Plus, I used CMOS for my Ph.D. dissertation.

Here’s what CMOS says about this topic:

CMOS numerals

Readers are confused

I know I wasn’t alone in my confusion. Look at the response I received when I polled my LinkedIn connections about this topic.

start sentence with numerals

Am I going to change my writing style to accommodate this new information? Maybe sometimes. In general, however, I’ll try to write in a way that doesn’t require putting 2022 or 401(k) at the start of a sentence.

Sure, it’s right under AP style to start a sentence that way. However, there will be CMOS followers and others who look at that sentence and think, “Susan, that’s wrong.” I blogged about this problem in “Being right about grammar isn’t always good enough.”

 

Disclosure: If you click on the Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I link only to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.

Data are versus data is

Should you write “data is” or “data are”? Whenever possible, I suggest writing to avoid the use of the term “data” by itself. Why? Because, as Garner’s Modern American Usage says, “Data is a SKUNKED term: whether you write data are or data is, you’re likely to make some readers raise their eyebrows.” I think Garner is right about that.

I just started a poll on LinkedIn asking if people see the word as plural or singular. There was no consensus, though respondents favored plural.

data singular or plural

Data are

There’s no question that the word “data” comes from Latin, in which “data” is plural and “datum” would be the singular form.

In favor of using plural verbs, Garner says:

  • “Technically a plural, data has, since the 1940s, been increasingly treated as a mass noun taking a singular verb. But in more or less formal contexts it is preferably treated as a plural.”
  • “In one particular use, data is rarely treated as singular: when it begins a clause and is not preceding by an article. E.g.: Data over the last two years suggest…”

Associated Press style agrees with Garner in one context, saying “In scientific and academic writing, plural verbs and pronouns are preferred.”

Should you write "data are" or "data is"?

Data is

However, times are changing. Associated Press style generally favors “data is.”

In favor of SINGULAR, Garner says: “One context in which the singular use of data might be allowed is in computing and allied disciplines…”

It depends

Some experts don’t use the same verb tense across all cases. I think Grammar Girl’s quote from Oxford Dictionaries in particularly useful in describing why one publication or editor might sometimes use singular verbs and sometimes use plural verbs. The Grammar Girl website says:

Oxford Dictionaries maintains that “data” has developed two separate meanings:

  1. the original plural meaning that conveys the idea of multiple data bits or pieces
  2. a singular meaning that acts as a mass noun roughly equivalent to the word “information.”

Grammar Girl also says:

Dictionaries and news sites including the Wall Street Journal and The Guardian, and style guides including The Chicago Manual of Style have updated their recommendations to allow that “data” can be singular or plural.

Along similar lines, The Copyeditor’s Handbook says: “…copyeditors in corporate communications departments are often expected to treat data as a singular noun.” It contrasts this with academic presses and scholarly journals using plural.

What should YOU do?

One way to deal with this issue is to avoid it by writing in a way that doesn’t make you choose between plural and singular verbs. A math writer friend uses “the set of data” for this purpose.

If you can’t avoid the need to choose, then I suggest you pick one style and stick with it. If everyone in your company knows that the corporate style is “data is” or “data are,” you’ll make everyone’s lives easier.