There are only a few people I know that can recite grammar rules off the top of their head:
1) The feared Mr. Oliver from my high school English class who insisted an em dash consisted of three typed hyphens, not two as the auto-formatting feature of Micrsoft Word would have you believe.
2) A professor I had for one class in college who could sniff out passive voice in an essay like a dog can find a stray crumb in a clean kitchen.
3) The grad school prof in whose class I read The Chicago Manual of Style from cover-to-cover.
After all that, I still forget the difference between complimentary and complementary, the correct number of dots in an ellipses (three…), and how to spell “received.” There’s an old adage that says never memorize something you can look up, so I make liberal use of the internet, my hand-annotated copy of CMoS, and the old rhyme: “i before e, except after c”. Here is a list of my favorite references:
The Chicago Manual of Style: a new version of this grammarian’s Bible comes out every few years, and anyone in the publishing industry probably has one on her desk. It’s updated regularly to reflect modern usage of punctuation and spelling. Though hefty and thorough, it’s the most up to date reference because it keeps up with the trends.
The Little, Brown Compact Handbook: This spiral-bound reference tool is relatively light-weight and easy-to-use. When I taught at Penn State, it was on the required book list for all freshman Composition and Rhetoric classes. I taught from this book, andI used often myself to write my own papers. It focuses on academic writing, and it includes citation examples from all three major style guides–APA, MLA, and Chicago. However, I find the examples easy to understand and applicable to a variety of writing projects.
The Elements of Style: This old classic from William Strunk and E.B. White (of Charlotte’s Web fame) was given to me the day I matriculated at Hamilton College. Signed by the college president at the time (who later stepped down after he plagiarized an Amazon.com book review in a speech), the book sat unopened for years even though I carted in cross-country every summer when I went back home to Colorado. Though I have not made as much use of it myself, this slim book offers even modern writers deft advice for crafting beautiful prose.
A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation: This novel-sized reference is a relatively new addition to my shelf. Picked up at a book fair while I was still at Penn State, this book breaks down in digestible chunks ways to get the most out of your punctuation. Geared toward creative writers, author Noah Lukeman shows how to break the old rules to enliven your writing.
Roget’s Thesaurus: As much as my students rolled their eyes when I told them to bust out a thesaurus instead of using the same word over and over and over and over in a paper, I whole-heartedly believe that this book is essential to freshening up your vocabulary. Sadly, my own copy was sacrificed in one of my many moves (too heavy) but there are a few decent thesaurus sites online. Beware, don’t just pick any ol’ synonym–be sure it fits the tone of your piece!
Oxford English Dictionary-Online: I know it’s not cool to admit this, but one of the things I miss most about my college years is free access to the online definition cornucopia that is the OED online. However, I have discovered that I can access it via the Seattle Public Library website with my library card log in. The card is free, so…get one! (There are lots of other databases available.) http://www.spl.org/default.asp?pageID=collection_db_list&dbPage=10
Below are a list of books I saw while snooping around the bookstore. I haven’t actually used or reviewed them, but they might be worth checking out. Feel free to post reviews below. Here’s the link for my Amazon.com wishlist for more info about the books mentioned on this page: http://amzn.com/w/5EBRXWQ2J24R
Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss
Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors by Bill Bryson