The best books about the English language

17 authors have picked their favorite books about the English language and why they recommend each book.

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Lincoln's Sword

By Douglas Wilson,

Book cover of Lincoln's Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words

Other presidents used ghostwriters to compose their speeches and other personal writings. Lincoln, who knew he could express himself better than anyone else, wrote not only his own texts but many of those issued by departments or agencies of the government. He needed to frame policies in just the right way, to guide history and make its outcomes clear. His best sword was the perfectly wielded word.


Who am I?

In high school (the best time for doing this) I read the first two volumes of Carl Sandburg’s six-volume biography of Lincoln. A year or so later I made my first trip on an airplane (Saint Louis to Detroit) and an easily recognizable Sandburg was one of the few passengers on our small commercial prop-plane. I was too shy to approach him, but I did sidle up the aisle to see what he was reading or writing (nothing that I could make out). He had boarded the plane alone, but there was a small party meeting him when we landed. I suppose it was Sandburg’s poetic approach to Lincoln that made me alert to the President’s astonishing feel for the English language.


I wrote...

Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America

By Garry Wills,

Book cover of Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America

What is my book about?

When, later, I fell in love with the ancient Greeks and got a doctorate in that field, I was surprised at the rhetorical and logical rules that Athenians formulated, rules that Lincoln, with little schooling, grasped intuitively. With an almost miraculous appropriateness, Lincoln gave a funeral oration over the graves at Gettysburg that resembles the Athenian addresses in honor of their fallen military men of the preceding year. The religious ceremonies at the Greek cemetery (Kerameikos) were like the Transcendental cult of nature in the new scenic cemeteries (like Gettysburg) that were replacing the old church graveyards.  Lincoln spoke into a charged air that let him make his brief but powerful address call his audience back to the real meaning of the Constitution.

Wordslut

By Amanda Montell,

Book cover of Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language

Ok sure, she had me at the title. But Montell dives deep into the language we use every day that, yes, often demeans women. Many of our body parts were taken from Latin words that dudes used to describe them. And the meanings weren’t always flattering. She also explains the positives of Valley Girl-Speak such as “like” and of vocal fry, and women are so fast to say “sorry.” Did you know that “hussy” used to mean housewife and “slut” meant a messy person that could be a man? Or that “bitch” used to be a gender-neutral name that had nothing to do with dogs? And why are some words considered feminine and others, male? Read this book to find out. 


Who am I?

From Lehr’s prize-winning fiction to her viral New York Times Modern Love essay, exploring the challenges facing contemporary women has been Lehr’s life-long passion. A Boob’s Life, her first project since breast cancer treatment, continues this mission, taking all who will join her on a wildly informative, deeply personal, and utterly relatable journey.  And that’s exactly the kind of books she likes to read – the ones that make her laugh, nod in recognition, and understand a little more about life. She recommends these five books to everyone who asks.


I wrote...

A Boob's Life: How America's Obsession Shaped Me--And You

By Leslie Lehr,

Book cover of A Boob's Life: How America's Obsession Shaped Me--And You

What is my book about?

A Boob’s Life explores the surprising truth about women’s most popular body part with vulnerable, witty frankness and true nuggets of American culture that will resonate with everyone who has breasts – or loves them.

Author Leslie Lehr has gone from size AA to DDDDD and everything between, from puberty to motherhood, enhancement to cancer, and beyond. And she’s not alone—these are classic life stages for women. At turns funny and heartbreaking, A Boob’s Life explores both the joys and hazards inherent to living in a woman’s body. Lehr deftly blends her personal narrative with national history, starting in the 1960s with the women’s liberation movement and moving to the current feminist dialogue and what it means to be a woman. Her insightful and clever writing analyzes how America’s obsession with the female form has affected her own life’s journey and the psyche of all women today.

The Elements of Style

By William Strunk, E.B. White,

Book cover of The Elements of Style

If you ever took a college English composition class, chances are you read this book. Why did you have to read it? Because it’s that good. Some things change, but crisp, clear composition remains relevant. “Omit needless words.” “Write in active voice.” Pithy statements like these still echo in the chambers of the minds of thousands of writers. Heed those voices! 


Who am I?

I’m a lawyer. One thing effective trial attorneys learn to do is become “pretend experts” in any area necessary for a case. It might be orthopedic medicine, commercial building design, auto accident reconstruction, or a thousand other subjects. In 1996, when I started writing my first novel, The List, I decided to become a “pretend expert” in the field of story-telling. Twenty books later, I’ve worked hard to make the transition to actual expert, someone who’s studied the craft of writing so I can create a story with professionalism and skill. These books aren’t the only ones I’ve read on this topic, but they’re some of the best.


I wrote...

Relative Justice

By Robert Whitlow,

Book cover of Relative Justice

What is my book about?

High-stakes litigation is way outside attorney David Cobb’s comfort zone. He’d rather eat southern comfort food at a restaurant in Wilmington, NC, than file a lawsuit. That changes when he agrees to help Zeke Caldwell, a family friend who’s patented one of his home remedies, and now believes it’s been stolen by a big pharmaceutical company. David’s sister-in-law Katelyn Cobb has the experience gained from working with a big Washington, DC, law firm. But working with her brother-in-law? There’s no law school class on that subject. Together, they seek justice for Zeke in a case that becomes much more sinister than a claim of patent piracy

The Emotion Thesaurus

By Angela Ackerman, Becca Puglisi,

Book cover of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression

When I write, I use many different tools. For example, every author needs a good dictionary, a thesaurus, and the Chicago Manual of Style. I consult places like the APA Diagnostic and Statistical Manual to get personality traits right and take notes when watching movies to see how actors portray emotions. When I saw this title, I knew I had to have it. Like any thesaurus, it cross-references different emotions, but it does much more. It gives body language, intonation, and thoughts that accompany an emotion. It makes suggestions for dialogue and visceral responses. It provides multiple ways for an author to show what’s going on in a character’s head and heart, without telling. Most importantly, like any thesaurus, it helps writers avoid repeating themselves and thus add variety and vigor. 


Who am I?

A dozen years ago, I decided to publish short stories. I figured it’d be easy. After all, I’d published textbooks and countless research papers. It turned out I was wrong. Writing fiction is hard. My stories read like my math publications, but without the math. Then I had the good fortune to join a writing group that included experienced, published authors. Their guidance taught me the basics of the craft. I supplemented their mentorship by reading books on writing. It was like going to graduate school all over again. This list of books is the distillation of those dozen years of learning. I’m still learning. I expect I’ll never quit.


I wrote...

Timekeepers

By Max Griffin,

Book cover of Timekeepers

What is my book about?

History is a fragile thing. Haakon's job with Timekeepers is to prevent Deviations that could change the past and devastate the future. But saving humanity comes at a high cost, especially now when destiny forces him to choose between the man he loves and the future he's sworn to protect.

Plain Words

By Ernest Gowers,

Book cover of Plain Words: A Guide to the Use of English

I first read this as a teenager, and its wise counsel has stayed with me ever since. Gowers’ book was originally written as a guide for British government workers, to help them avoid the perils of jargon and ‘officialese’ and write in a way that colleagues and (more importantly) the person in the street could actually understand. 

The fact that I could immediately apply the ideas to my school essays shows you why this book has been continuously in print since the 1950s, and why generations of writers have found it so useful in shaping their own style. 

Practicing exactly what he preaches, Gowers lays down the principles of plain English, in plain English. Read and see why this deserves to be called a classic.


Who am I?

I’ve been working with words for over 25 years, as a writer and editor in publishing houses, design studios, and now as a freelance. I help everyone from big brands and small businesses through to academics and consultants get their ideas out of their heads and on to the page. I was an original co-founder of ProCopywriters, the UK alliance for commercial writers. I’ve written and self-published four books, the most recent of which is How to Write Clearly. The books I’ve chosen all helped me to write as clearly as I can—not least when writing about writing itself. I hope they help you too! 


I wrote...

How to Write Clearly: Write with purpose, reach your reader and make your meaning crystal clear

By Tom Albrighton,

Book cover of How to Write Clearly: Write with purpose, reach your reader and make your meaning crystal clear

What is my book about?

Aliens have abducted all the freelance writers in the world! OK, that’s not true. But How to Write Clearly is the book I wrote when I imagined it was.

If my clients suddenly had to write for themselves, what would I tell them? I’d deal with titles, sentences, and structure. I’d talk about plain language. I’d cover key steps like planning, research, editing, and feedback. I’d share ways to make your message real, like metaphors and stories, and ways to explain new ideas and make them stick. Finally, I’d bring my guidance bang up to date with the latest ideas in education, psychology, and digital user experience. Basically, if you need to express yourself clearly on the page, How to Write Clearly is for you.

Learn to Write Badly

By Michael Billig,

Book cover of Learn to Write Badly

This is a must for any aspiring social scientist. Ironically entitled, the book offers a brilliant account of how many researchers in the social sciences resort to esoteric jargon and abstruse arguments to promote themselves in their academic micro-fiefdoms, defend their areas of expertise from outsiders but also to obfuscate and conceal their own ignorance. The book, however, can also be read on how to write well and get published in the social sciences.


Who am I?

I am a Greek social psychologist and have spent much of my academic career studying myths and stories in social life - stories, even when inaccurate or wrong, serve to create meaning, a fragile and valuable resource, especially in these post-truth times. At the same time, I believe that we must not lose sight of the distinctions between story and fact, fantasy and reality, truth and fiction. I am greatly concerned that the social sciences today, as shaped by the academic publishing game, are preoccupied with trivia and act as black holes into which meaning disappears. I strongly believe that it is our responsibility to restore the meaningfulness of academic research.


I wrote...

Return to Meaning: A Social Science with Something to Say

By Yiannis Gabriel, Mats Alvesson, Roland Paulsen

Book cover of Return to Meaning: A Social Science with Something to Say

What is my book about?

This book argues that we are currently witnessing a proliferation of meaningless research in the social sciences of no value to society. The explosion of published outputs creates a noisy, cluttered environment which makes meaningful research difficult, as different voices compete to capture the limelight even briefly. The result is a widespread cynicism among academics on the value of academic research, sometimes including their own. Publishing comes to be seen as a game of hits and misses, devoid of intrinsic meaning and value and of no wider social uses whatsoever. The book’s second part offers a range of proposals aimed at restoring meaning at the heart of social science research, and drawing social science back, addressing the major problems and issues that face our societies.

Language in Thought and Action

By S.I. Hayakawa, Alan R. Hayakawa,

Book cover of Language in Thought and Action

Any edition of this book would be great. This book was an inspiration for a class I teach on the interwoven nature of language, thought, and action. I love the way this book pulls back the curtain on things we do every day in our communication with others. It also provides a great foundation for accepting and enjoying human differences.   


Who am I?

I have been a Professor of Communication Studies for decades and I strongly believe that the quality of our communication is inescapably tied to the quality of our lives. For me, communication and intercultural experiences have always been marked by serendipity. Serendipities are unexpected finds or discoveries that eventually turn out to be insightful, pleasant, and stimulating even when they are difficult at the time. My time interacting with others in different regions of the U.S., Europe, and Asia has provided for surprising, scary, joyful, and frustrating experiences that have been full of serendipity. I hope that in reading these books you will also harvest serendipity. 


I wrote...

Among Cultures: The Challenge of Communication

By Bradford Hall, Patricia O. Covarrubias, Kristin A. Kirschbaum

Book cover of Among Cultures: The Challenge of Communication

What is my book about?

We, as humans, are at heart storytellers. This book is grounded in the idea that people make sense of their world through a process of choosing and telling narratives to themselves and others. We use stories and commentary to explain the challenges of intercultural communication. Each chapter begins with a guiding question and a narrative that illustrates a particular intercultural challenge and provides context to discuss ideas for understanding and navigating the multicultural world in which we live.

The book explores the nature of culture, the role of identity, worldviews, and values in communication. It illustrates challenges in both verbal and nonverbal communication and investigates the nature of conflict, prejudice, and how to deal ethically and effectively with differences in a wide variety of settings.

The Elements of Eloquence

By Mark Forsyth,

Book cover of The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase

This clever and funny book explains that there are specific techniques that make good writing sound good, or a pithy phrase stick in the mind, and tells you the long and difficult Greek (or slightly easier Latin) names for all these rules you kind of knew without actually knowing.

I can hardly retain any of the Greek labels, but I do remember the fun little examples, like why Oscar Wilde’s epigrams are so striking (antithesis) and how Shakespeare totally lifted part of Julius Caesar from a historian, but polished it up (alliteration). And whenever you hear a memorable three-part phrase, it was probably longer but everyone forgot the other bits (tricolon). 

This is not one for fans of utilitarian writing, but as Forsyth says, “To write for mere utility is as foolish as to dress for mere utility.”


Who am I?

As a writer and historian, I’m all about rabbit holes. When something I’ve never heard about before catches my interest, I have to find out more—and sometimes I end up writing whole books on the subject! I have a head full of bizarre little nuggets of information, and I love reading books, like the ones here, that tell me something new and change my way of thinking. 


I wrote...

Why Everything You Know about Robin Hood Is Wrong: Featuring a pirate monk, a French maid, and a surprising number of morris dancers

By Karen C. Murdarasi,

Book cover of Why Everything You Know about Robin Hood Is Wrong: Featuring a pirate monk, a French maid, and a surprising number of morris dancers

What is my book about?

What if everything you ever knew about Robin Hood was wrong? He never met Maid Marian. He wasn’t a nobleman. He never went on Crusade. And he absolutely did not rob from the rich to give to the poor. 

Why Everything You Know about Robin Hood Is Wrong is an illuminating, entertaining, and really quite sarcastic trip through what we actually do know about one of England’s most famous heroes.

The Reign of Truth and Faith

By Helen Bromhead,

Book cover of The Reign of Truth and Faith: Epistemic Expressions in 16th and 17th Century English

This book takes the reader back to another speech world, that of 16th and 17th century English, albeit one on which we have some purchase through the plays of William Shakespeare. Where someone today may hedge their words with I suppose or probably, people in this time peppered their speech with expressions conveying certainty like verily and forsooth. This contrast represents the ethos of truth and faith that reigned at this time before it was replaced by a modern spirit of epistemic detachment ushered in by the British enlightenment. Yet a by my troth was not interchangeable with a by my faith, and each chapter of the book opens the door on the specifics of an epistemic expression in 16th and 17th century English through colourful examples, cultural evidence and a statement of its meaning. I love this book.


Who am I?

I am professor of linguistics (Emerita) at the Australian National University. I was born in Poland, but having married an Australian I have now lived for 50 years in Australia. In 2007, my daughter Mary Besemeres and I published Translating Lives: Living with Two Languages and Cultures, based on our own experience. I have three big ideas which have shaped my life’s work, and which are all related to my experience and to my thinking about that experience. As a Christian (a Catholic) I believe in the unity of the “human race”, and I am very happy to see that our discovery of “Basic Human” underlying all languages vindicates this unity.


I wrote...

What Christians Believe: The Story of God and People in Minimal English

By Anna Wierzbicka,

Book cover of What Christians Believe: The Story of God and People in Minimal English

What is my book about?

My book explains Christian faith, as distilled in the Nicene Creed of 325 and 381 A.D., through Minimal English, which is the English version of a slightly expanded form of “Basic Human”. The “Story of God and People” told in Minimal English shows the power and versatility of simple words, which, evidence suggests, all languages share.

As the book shows, with the help of such “universal human words”, supplemented by a small inventory of words important to a particular culture, a very rich and sophisticated set of ideas can be explained in a way intelligible to anyone, regardless of their background and beliefs. There are well over two billion Christians in the world, about one third of the world’s total population.

Pardon my Spanish!

By Harrap,

Book cover of Pardon my Spanish!

This pocket slang dictionary was given to us as a leaving gift when we waved goodbye to England’s grey skies. It has had me sniggering ever since. I guarantee you’ll never hear sentences like those in Pardon My Spanish at your Spanish class. Oh no. It will teach you essential phrases like ya estoy cansado de ser yo siempre el pagano (I’m fed up with being the stupid mug who always ends up paying) or hoy esta de malas pulgas (she’s really ratty today). Totally invaluable.

Who am I?

Victoria Twead is the New York Times bestselling author of Chickens, Mules and Two Old Fools and the subsequent six books in the Old Fools series. After living in a remote mountain village in Spain for eleven years, and owning probably the most dangerous cockerel in Europe, Victoria and Joe retired to Australia. Another joyous life-chapter has begun.


I wrote...

Chickens, Mules and Two Old Fools

By Victoria Twead,

Book cover of Chickens, Mules and Two Old Fools

What is my book about?

Forget quiet retirement. If we’d known what relocating to a tiny Spanish mountain village would really be like, we might have hesitated. The truth was that Joe and I were thrown into a new life of surprises, adventures, and laughs. Every day was packed full of fun and sunshine that spilled over into six more books in the Old Fools series.

How could we guess that we’d become reluctant chicken farmers causing fights amongst the village ladies as they queued for fresh eggs? We had no idea we’d own the most dangerous cockerel in Spain, or help capture a vulture, or be rescued by the village mule. And when the village ladies gave me their favourite recipes, of course I shared them in the books. I  guarantee they are delicious.  

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