Editing for Grammarians and Grammarphobes

When you work as an editor, you become familiar with a veritable library full of texts to help you hone your craft and sharpen your expertise. Whether you’re a die-hard fan of Strunk and White’s classic Elements of Style or whether you prefer a more modern approach to the field like that of Carol Fisher Saller’s The Subversive Copy Editor, you will have no trouble finding the right title for your skill level and preferences.

But what if you’re not an editor and you want to learn about editing anyway? Maybe you’re looking to polish your resume or cover letter. Maybe you want to brush up on all the grammar you forgot from elementary or high school. Maybe you just like learning about English, and that’s that. If this sounds like you, the aforementioned texts might not quite fit the bill.

Not to fear! For grammar experts and novices alike, compiled here is a short list of books dedicated to presenting the particulars of the English language in an accessible, engaging, and fun (yes, fun!) way. The following books are written by experts who can appeal to both seasoned editors and to a more general audience who wants to get better at writing on a technical level without falling asleep in the process.

  1. Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris

    A copyeditor and proofreader at the New Yorker since 1978, Mary Norris has certainly earned the title of comma queen. This book, published in 2015, suits novice editors particularly well because Norris takes a distinctly kind and humble approach to edifying her audience. Rather than feeling like an academic text, this book reads like a memoir full of funny personal stories from Norris’s career with short, grammatical lessons interwoven with subtlety and care. Most importantly, Norris’s tone is sympathetic rather than pedantic so as not to exclude any potential readers, no matter how much experience with grammar they may have. To entice the more experienced grammarian, she takes a critical and fresh approach to some long-held grammatical rules (e.g., arguing that “between you and I” is, in fact, never correct—between you and me, I think she’s right).
  2. Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer

    For those of us looking for something slightly more academic but no less entertaining, this book is just the thing. As the copy chief and managing editor at Random House since 2008, Dreyer has copyedited numerous titles and has perfected the distillation of some of language’s most complex concepts into short, engaging tidbits. In this book, published in 2019, he uses personal stories, current events, and useful examples to illustrate his points. One such example is his suggestion to plug the phrase “by zombies” into the end of a sentence to determine whether it is in the active or passive voice. If it sounds like the zombies did it, it’s passive. The takeaway from this one is that the true aim of correct grammar is clarity of meaning, not being a snob.
  3. Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T. O’Conner

    The final title in this list is a classic that has demystified English grammar in a super engaging and entertaining way since the publication of its first edition in 1996. O’Conner’s Woe Is I was perhaps one of the first of its kind, a brave renegade seeking to bring the joys of correct spelling and punctuation to the masses. In it, O’Conner both coins the glorious term “grammarphobe” and seeks to make the minutiae of English something even grammarphobes themselves can enjoy.

What all these books have in common (aside from the use of colons in their extra-long titles) is their dedication to making the traditionally stuffy or elitist world of editing accessible to anyone interested in it. So whether you are an experienced editor or just someone looking for a fun, educational read about language, these titles are a great place to start.