Continuing with our series on Must Read books, this guest post has been articulated by George Thomas. The fact that George’s blog about movies, music and books is titled Beware of the Blog, says it all.
Would I be amiss in crowning “Word Power Made Easy” by Norman Lewis as THE official guide for numerous undergraduates back home preparing to take their GRE (or “give their GRE” until they make it to the American shore and realise that they had it wrong)? Lewis covers word origins, the subtle differences in meanings of apparent synonyms, pronunciation and accents. He also tells you how to plan your learning and make best use of the book. Despite his advice, I remember occasionally “reading” the book (instead of, as he recommended, “working with it, writing in it, talking aloud to it or talking back to it”). You can choose whatever approach works best for you, but you can rest assured that all the time and interest you invest in this book will yield great dividends. You will find yourself leaving with a far better understanding of the English language without having to worry about its colourful history, its idiosyncracies and how rules of grammar yield to the force of evolution.
I found “All About Words: An Adult Approach to Vocabulary Building” by Maxwell Nurnberg and Morris Rosenblum thanks to a day spent at a train station thanks to a delay because of an accident further on up the tracks. Nurnberg and Rosenblum believe in helping you remember new words (“after” you know what they mean, they add) by taking them apart and telling you more about prefixes, suffixes and roots. Although that premise could result in a stuffy academic tome, Nurnberg and Rosenblum make their book more enjoyable with trivia, stories and by presenting one interesting chapter after another. You have chapters dedicated to the sources of words (one for newspapers, another for books, yet another for myths and one for persons and places), the roots of words, prefixes, suffixes, one dedicated solely to numbers and another dedicated to the debt that the English language owes to other languages including those from India — did you know that the word “bandanna” has its origins in Hindi? Each chapter comes with one or more multiple-choice exercises for you to guess the meanings of new words. This book is packed to its seams and is more demanding that the Norman Lewis book, but its rewards are also far greater.
Like most subjects you are taught in school, English grammar suffers from an instructional approach that is prescriptive and stentorian instead of offering an entertaining journey of discovery. Consequently, words like nominative, gerund and participles seem like cuss words instead of aids to understanding the structure of sentences and paragraphs. You can find several books that explore the various pragmatic aspects of English grammar by stripping away the stiff academic tone and replacing it with humour and simplicity. One of them is “Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English” by Patricia O’Connor, with interesting titles for chapters (“Plurals for Swine”) and numerous examples of the abuse of words in English (using “impact” instead of “effect”, using “dialogue” and “interface” as verbs).
Another is “Sleeping Dogs Don’t Lay: Practical Advice for the Grammatically Challenged” by Richard Lederer and Richard Dowis, which, in addition to talking about expressions to be avoided, words that have been abused and misused and rules of grammar that are abused by people who should know better, also offers a less pedantic approach to some rules of usage that, like complex legalese, leave room for interpretation and improvisation. Such a take is quite refreshing and also useful lest you evolve into a pundit or even an annoying pedant (like Bernard Woolley in “Yes Minister” and “Yes Prime Minister“). Being a pedant isn’t such a bad thing, but being an annoying one is a completely different matter.
If you hunger for more entertaining explorations of English language and grammar look no further than the ouevre of Karen Elizabeth Gordon. Titles like “The Well-Tempered Sentence: A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed“, “Torn Wings and Faux Pas: A Flashbook of Style, a Beastly Guide Through the Writer’s Labyrinth” and “The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: A Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager and the Doomed” should suffice to give you an idea of what lies in store for you.